Telluride in Transition

Michael Fox August 29, 2007

Changing horses in midstream is never recommended, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. That’s the case with the one-of-a-kind Telluride Film Festival, founded in 1975 by Bill and Stella Pence, Tom Luddy and James Card. An intimate four-day buffet of tributes, premieres, restorations, and revivals laid out in the Colorado mountains, Telluride is an oasis for film lovers. The deal-making, gossip, and financial chitchat endemic to Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, and Sundance are absent and art (and the art of the anecdote) take center stage. At the end of last year’s conclave, however, the Pences announced their retirement and handed their share of the reins to exhibition veteran Gary Meyer. The fest subsequently consolidated its headquarters in Berkeley and enters a new era as the curtains go up Friday on the 34th annual bash. What changes lie in store?

Precious few, frankly. The unique cachet of Telluride — which derives from the isolation and beauty of its location, the absolute secrecy that cloaks the program until mere hours before the opening program and the small number of passes (1,200 for sale to the public and journalists, a couple hundred for patrons and 600 for festival employees, who are at the movies when they’re not working their shifts) — is something neither Luddy nor Meyer wish to mess with. Indeed, Meyer’s familiarity and history with the festival (he’s been a regular attendee since the second fest in 1975, and a part of the curatorial team and a member of the Board of Governors for several years) had a lot to do with Luddy and Bill Pence’s decision.

“We both identified Gary years ago as the person who’d be the new co-director,” Luddy confides on the phone from Taos, en route to Telluride with a van of staffers and volunteers. “I have a lot of confidence in Gary. I’ve known him forever.” Meyer, of course, co-founded and ran Landmark Theatres for 20 years before selling the chain in 1996, and most recently consulted various exhibitors while running the Balboa Twin in the Richmond District. “Gary’s certainly got the right kind of sensibility for the festival,” says an objective but interested observer, Marcus Hu of Strand Releasing. “I think he’s the perfect match for Telluride.” For his part, Meyer says, “I can’t imagine there being a better next act.”

Luddy and Meyer solidified the staff by bringing in Julie Huntsinger to take up Stella Pence’s mantle as Managing Director. Huntsinger’s entry to the film biz came almost 15 years ago as Luddy’s assistant at Zoetrope in San Francisco; she soon moved up to production supervisor for feature films. Director of support Muffy Deslaurier, meanwhile, agreed to relocate from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where the Pences lived and had maintained a festival office.

Several degrees of efficiency are gained by having the fest’s permanent year-round staff in one place, Luddy notes. That applies to the programmers as well, even in the age of DVD, Fed Ex and broadband. “It was becoming a little more difficult, especially when we were seeing new films from studios on digital formats when they’re unfinished,” Luddy explains. “Bill would have to go to Boston, and a lot of time would be lost. Now Gary and I can see [a work in progress] together, at Pixar or Lucasfilm.” Hu, who’s based in Los Angeles, seconds that emotion. “There are times just being in California makes it easier to be plugged in,” he states.

Neither Meyer nor Luddy anticipate, however, that being based in the Bay Area will influence the festival’s programming. Especially this year, when the bosses are sticking to the main road rather than blazing a new trail. “Except for the fact that I’ll be introducing more movies, it’s going to look like Telluride has always looked,” Meyer asserts. That means a guest programmer with a specific theme, for one thing. Edith Kramer, the retired curator and director of the Pacific Film Archive, is filling that role with a focus on avant-garde film, including a salute to a Bay Area experimental filmmaker. [ editor’s note: Our pre-fest guess, Bruce Conner, was incorrect. George Kuchar is the tributee.]

Another constant at Telluride is three honorees: One household name (Penelope Cruz filled that slot in 2006), an individual who’s well known in cinema circles but not to the general public (Walter Murch was feted last year) and an artist who’s achieved a reputation in his or her own country but is largely unknown beyond its borders (filmmaker Rolf de Heer of Australia took the bows). Bay Area film buffs without tickets to Colorado should know the cat has slipped out of the bag with respect to the last category. Careful readers of the small print in the PFA’s September/October calendar will share our conclusion that it’s not a coincidence that the veteran Indian director Shyam Benegal is coming to Berkeley with three of his films a scant two days after Telluride.

A tribute to Benegal in Colorado would be perfectly consistent with Meyer’s mantra for Telluride’s attendees. “They deserve something they haven’t seen before,” he declares. “I don’t want someone to come from New York and say, ‘Tribeca showed five of these movies.’” Between Luddy and Meyer’s clout and the festival’s reputation for attracting quality films and the top filmmakers, there seems little chance that throngs of unsatisfied filmgoers will suddenly start appearing at the Telluride hitching post.