There are some great films for you to enjoy as part of the post-festival celebration of the 48th Telluride Film Festival. As staff packs up the curtains, swag and signage and finishes breaking down all the festival theaters before collapsing in exhaustion, one question is on our mind. Was this year a success?
Yes, a resounding “yes.” Other festivals will look to Telluride to gauge whether this festival was able to pivot to in-person screenings during a pandemic. Did our dedicated fans return? Did they feel safe? Was there any buzz built with engaging programming paired with film celebrities? Again, as I asked these questions of long-time festival attendees, the answer was a resounding affirmative.
It wasn’t easy. Not only was there less staff and volunteers, we also didn’t have some of our Patron Saints of the film festival to cheer us on. COVID-19 concerns keep some patrons at home, especially older filmgoers. For those of us that treat this time as a big yearly family reunion of film friends, we basked in hugs and caught up. We remarked on all the changes in town and in our lives. We brought our patience, our humor and most of all, our masks.
Speaking to festival passholders, I was told many times that they felt that the festival COVID protocols were essential. Looking around theaters full of masked, but smiling faces, was gratifying. Some film fans felt safer if they remained masked in queues outside as well as in the theater, and no one was criticized for that. As someone who works in and outside a theater, I witnessed very few people arriving sans mask and no one grimaced at the gentle reminders to “please cover your nose too.”
A testing tent set up outside Town Park was the first line that most staff, volunteers and passholders stood in. It wasn’t enough to show your vaccination card; you needed to have a negative COVID test result 72 hours prior to picking up your pass. Many staff got tested multiple times. Results for rapid tests were quick and painless, and eased our minds. There was consistent messaging on the protocols and anyone making the trip to Telluride had been sent emails verifying that compliance was required.
This year, there was an additional day of festival programming and a new outdoor screening location in Town Park. With staff told to “hold back” on first screenings, the Thursday screenings were less well-attended and served as more of a preview of the program. There were far less people in the Town Park than were gathered together for warmth and companionship on the Elks park lawn. This may have been due to the fact that though passholders do come to the festival sporting folding chairs (some small enough to fit in backpacks), rarely do they have the blankets, hats and gloves required to stay warm in the more open and thus chillier, space in Town Park.
There were a few missed opportunities that were surprising. No branded masks. No water bottles for staff even though no water stations were provided due to COVID concerns. Upside down garbage and recycle bins all around town as that team had been reduced drastically. A simple taped sample of what was compostable at the Opening Night Feed and Labor Day Picnic would have saved contamination by all those non-compostable plates.
The programming was exceptional as is standard for the Telluride Film Festival. There seemed to be a theme of perseverance. Having a few big buzzy Hollywood films added as sneak peeks seemed to split audience attendance away from the official program. This was both a good thing as festival fans were thrilled to see more famous faces and revered filmmakers in attendance, but also impacted how many of the TBAs could be utilized for repeat showings of films that were building buzz.
The fall film festivals are in competition for film premieres. Everyone wants to have the big films, whether it’s the latest from a major director or an independent film with buzz. All the festivals want to attract the stars. It gives the festival cachet and keeps patrons, donors and festival boards happy. It’s difficult to keep a festival running without sponsors and donors. Celebrities make your festival exciting. This year, there were plenty of stars in town. Even if Riz Ahmed chose to be on the jury for the Toronto Film Festival rather than to accept his Silver Medallion Award in person, there were plenty of big names flying in from Venice to Telluride. It’s a lot of work to promote a film but we have a glorious location and an appreciative audience … with limited press and paparazzi interference.
Fewer passholders meant that ticket buyers could get into more films. Staff and volunteers could be admitted to a few of the smaller venues. There were still plenty of film screenings that had to turn away hundreds of passholders that waited patiently in the elements only to race off in disappointment to find another queue to join. There seemed to be less opportunity to see a handful of films that became the talk of the town: “Belfast,” “Spencer,” “A Hero,” “The Rescue.” “C’mon, C’mon,” and “Petite Maman.” Fortunately, there were five screenings of “The Power of the Dog” and director Jane Campion and Benedict Cumberbatch were at all the screenings (sometimes joined by Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee) and joined film conversations in the park.
Reflecting on this year’s film festival, there was a scaling-up with the addition of the extra day and screening location but with no scaling-up of staffing. There were many added screenings that were surprise additions rather than repeated films that needed more room to garner audience attention. Staff worked longer hours and an extra day but there was no staff party, less swag, and fewer opportunities for many of us to attend screenings. There was still a great celebration of film that happened in our community and even if there were challenges, there was also a lot of kindness and consideration. We took care of each other and can be proud of this year’s success.