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The Telluride Film Festival is Independent but Not So Pure

Attending the Telluride Film Festival is like going to Church in Beverly Hills. While most of the people there are defenders of the faith, they are mostly the rich and famous ones of society. Telluride is a festival that claims to be pure in its faithfulness to honor independent films, but they have also succumbed to the temptation of mainstream Hollywood and the prestige it brings.

It is hard to believe that a former mining town would become the Mecca for film purists. However, every Labor Day weekend for the past thirty eight years the small resort town of Telluride Colorado holds its world famous independent film festival, and the faithful show up in droves.

Located in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado next to a prestigious ski resort, Telluride is a beautiful, yet unlikely location for an independent film festival. In many ways, this location is a symbol of this festival as a whole, for it represents the idea that the fate of indie films is no longer in the hands of regular folks who make creative movies. It is now controlled by mainstream Hollywood.

The Telluride Film Festival is touted as being the purist of all independent film festivals. They do not give out awards and their claim is that they hold this festival only for the sake of honoring the art form itself. They also claim that their main goal is the discovery of new talent. However, that claim is getting harder and harder to justify each year when you see the list of films that are showcased.

Every one of the films accepted into the Telluride Film Festival ultimately has some sort of connection to mainstream Hollywood, either before, or after it is accepted.  Whether it is a major star, director or writer, there always seems to be some big names involved in these films.  Yes, there are some movies screened there with no famous names attached like The Artist, but almost every film that is accepted ends up getting distributed by the indie film divisions of major studios. It is like the Farm League for the Big Six to find their products.

The two thousand and eleven roster of films at the Telluride Film Festival included a movie called The Descendents which was distributed by Fox Searchlight, the indie film division of 20th Century Fox.  It stars the perennial mainstream Hollywood favorite George Clooney. It was directed by Alexander Payne who has written and directed many Hollywood blockbusters including Election in nineteen ninety nine and Jurassic Park III in two thousand and one.

Another film that screened at the Telluride Film Festival in two thousand and eleven was Albert Nobbs. This film stars Glenn Close who has been a famous Hollywood name since the nineteen eighties when she burst onto the scene in Fatal Attraction.

The Descendants, Albert Nobbs and The Artist all premiered at Telluride in two thousand and eleven and all three went on to be nominated for Golden Globes and Academy Awards.  The Artist went on to win multiple Golden Globes and Academy Awards including the biggest mainstream Hollywood prize of all, Best Picture. In other words these films were embraced by mainstream Hollywood and its fans. By that fact alone, this makes them somewhat less than pure indie films. The success of these three films in mainstream Hollywood would suggest that the Telluride Film Festival has become somewhat of a preview venue for the Oscars. You do not get more mainstream than the Oscars.

Every feature film that is screened at the Telluride Film Festival must be a new release that is premiering for the first time anywhere. Because of this strict rule Telluride has a reputation for discovering talented indie filmmakers and independent films. Robert Rodriguez debuted his film El Mariachi at Telluride back in nineteen ninety two, giving him a springboard to a successful career in the mainstream Hollywood film industry.

Other notable talents that premiered their indie films at the Telluride Film Festival in the past are David Lynch with Blue Velvet, Neil Jordan with The Crying Game and Jim Jarmusch with Stranger than Paradise. All of these independent filmmakers garnered a lot of attention after their premieres and secured lucrative distribution deals from mainstream Hollywood studio distributors for their movies. This fact would suggest that premiering your indie film at the Telluride Film Festival is more about tapping into the big money Hollywood distribution deal than it is about screening a truly independent film for the sake of staying faithful to the art form.

There is nothing wrong with independent filmmakers getting distribution deals from major studios. In fact, it would be quite hard to find any filmmaker who does not want to get paid handsomely for their work. 

This is America, and almost everyone who works desires to be successful. However, the movie business in mainstream Hollywood is first and foremost about making money. The art aspect always takes a back seat when they are driving the bus on a film project.

If you are going to make the claim that you are the purist indie film festival in North America then you should not allow any entries that are affiliated with major studios in any way. Film Distributors should be banned from attending the Telluride Film Festival. There are plenty of other film festivals out there that are designed to get filmmakers distributions deals, so why does Telluride include themselves in that group if they are purely about screening indie films?

The fact of the matter is that once you open the door to allowing the mainstream Hollywood film studios to be associated with your indie film festival the purist aspect goes out the door. The spotlight shines only on the famous people and the undiscovered talent gets pushed aside. You cannot have it both ways. Sure, the big names bring big sponsors, media attention and prestige to your town, but they also bring commercialism and a lack of creativity too.

The Telluride Film Festival may be a favorite amongst cinema purists for its devotion to independent films and independent filmmakers, but there are some inconsistencies in their claim. It seems a little strange that a true indie film festival would be held at a resort town that does not accommodate people with small travel budgets, which is the case with most undiscovered indie filmmakers. All of the hotels, restaurants and stores in that town are very expensive. Even the tickets and badges for the festival are high priced as well. While it is considered to be all about the art of indie film from a purist point of view, you have to be a wealthy purist to afford a trip to The Telluride Film Festival. 

If you are going to call yourself the purist independent film festival in North America you should not have any connections to mainstream Hollywood. The Telluride Film Festival is an annual event that celebrates the creativity of independent filmmakers, while at the same time reveling in the attention that comes with big Hollywood names and mainstream Hollywood studios.


  2012 Copyright.  Michael P. Connelly

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