Learning to Love the Wonderful, Elitist Telluride Film Festival

I have a complicated relationship with the Telluride Film Festival. It’s a world-class fest, usually playing some of the year’s best movies, many of them world premieres introduced in person by their directors and stars, who are always humble and gracious. The venues, despite being commandeered school gyms and such, have state-of-the-art sound and projection. Telluride is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, a small Colorado mining town in a box canyon surrounded by gorgeous mountains, rivers, bears, raccoons … I don’t know, mountain goats probably? Oh, trees, an obscene number of trees. Even the Lorax is like, “Let’s take it down a notch, arboreally.” You’re 8,750 feet above sea level and there isn’t much light pollution, so at night you can see a million stars.

The flip side of this is that the Telluride Film Festival is hugely expensive and, by nature, elitist. The basic pass for the four-day event costs $780, or $195 a day, or $45.88 per film if you see a movie in all 17 available slots. There are also passes for $390 or $580 that grant access only to certain venues and screenings. None of these passes, not even the $780 one, guarantee you’ll actually get in to the movies you stand in line for, however. To guarantee entry, you’ll need to drop $4,900 on the Patron pass ($1,225 per day, or $288.24 per movie). Patrons are admitted first, so everyone else just has to queue up and hope there aren’t so many Patrons interested in this screening that nobody else gets in. Since passes sell out every year, the festival has no financial incentive to improve the system for anyone other than Patrons.

(If they did want to make things better for everyone, they could adopt Fantastic Fest’s ticketing system, which would eliminate queues and uncertainty. That would require Patrons to choose their movies the night before, though, and I get the feeling that being able to waltz in to any movie you choose at the last minute is one of Patronhood’s most desirable perks.)

The nearest semi-large airport is in Grand Junction (125 miles away), with a mom-and-pop airport in Montrose (65 miles away) — in either case, you have to rent a car or book a shuttle. Once you’re in Telluride — a town of 2,400 people where the median home value is $883,000 — well, there’s no Motel 6, and unlike New York or Austin, you don’t know anyone who lives there whose couch you can crash on. You’re looking at a few hundred dollars a night, minimum. All told, going to the Telluride Film Festival will cost an out-of-towner over $2,000.

A typical view in Telluride.

Given this information, you can probably guess who goes to Telluride: upscale white people. (People, by the way, who are NOT happy about waiting in line for two hours and then not getting in. These are people who ask to speak managers every day of their lives.) I’m generalizing a little, and “upscale” is subjective, but the festival is overwhelmingly white, and anyone there who isn’t an invited guest either paid a pretty penny or got lucky.

That’s what I did, by the way: got lucky. I have a friend who made better choices than I did, didn’t go into the arts for his profession, and has a nice lawyer job where he can afford a hotel room in nearby Mountain Village that he lets me share. Few press outlets pay their critics’ full expenses at fests anyway (one of the industry’s dirty little secrets), and Telluride is especially difficult because, unlike every other festival in the world, they don’t give press passes. Covering the festival professionally means buying (or getting your boss to buy) a pass like everyone else.

Naturally, this drastically reduces the number of journalists on the scene, a deliberate choice by the festival to keep Telluride from becoming a media zoo like a certain other fest in a neighboring Rocky Mountain state. You have to REALLY want to cover Telluride to do it. (I forgot to mention: Those passes go on sale on March 1 and sell out quickly. If you don’t get one, you’re out of luck.) And admittedly, the trade-off is nice. Fewer journalists and photographers milling around means the celebrities feel comfortable venturing out to public. There are no red carpet galas, no paparazzi, very little visible branding from sponsors. I saw Adam Sandler chatting with Willem Dafoe (what on Earth did they have to discuss?) on the sidewalk, nobody paying them much attention — or more exactly, everyone noticing but being cool about it because we’re not celebrity-gawkers in Telluride. At Sundance, they’d have been mobbed, and all the photos of them would have been filled with signage hawking free Stella Artois.

These strategies give Telluride organizers slightly more credibility than other festivals when they trot out the standard “it’s all about the movies” line (which all festivals say, including hyper-commercialized, studio-sponsored ones). But while that may be true for the programmers, it’s not true for the audience: If the movies were the only thing we cared about, we wouldn’t pay forty-five dollars per flick. There’s obviously something else drawing us here.

That’s what I grappled with during my fifth Telluride visit this past Labor Day weekend. It’s a wonderful festival — and such a hassle to attend. Many excellent films play there — in an atmosphere of self-congratulatory smugness. How do you write about that? It seems obnoxious to describe a festival as being for “movie lovers” when the average movie lover can’t afford to go.

It was on the final evening of this year’s fest that I got some clarity. I was taking the gondola from Telluride up to Mountain Village, where there’s a festival venue called Chuck Jones’ Cinema. Not “the Chuck Jones Cinema,” but “Chuck Jones’ Cinema,” as in the cinema that belongs to Chuck Jones. (I once learned but have now forgotten the connection between Telluride and the legendary Warner Bros. animator, other than that he once accepted a commission to design the poster.) The gondola is a 12-minute ride, free, subsidized by the towns, and the scenery from 50-100 feet off the ground is spectacular. The view is quiet, serene, and mostly uncluttered by human artifacts. It would be a terrific place for a murder, but that’s beside the point. Sometimes I get lucky and have a gondola to myself, and I just sit there and bask in contemplative silence and/or check my phone.

I was not lucky this time. The gondola contained three other persons, chatty middle-aged folks. Sometimes these experiences are pleasant; sometimes they are excruciating. Either way, you’re stuck on a gondola for 12 minutes. I wasn’t feeling chatty, so I smiled politely at them and went back to gazing out the window.

A view of Telluride from the gondola (click to embiggen).

After a few minutes I realized something: They had all gone quiet too. Their conversation had ceased and they were enjoying the scenery. It was downright reverent in there, like we were awestruck and felt it would be disrespectful to talk about something as inconsequential as movies in such a divine setting.

It occurred to me that I had seen this behavior before and hadn’t really registered it. Sometimes people talk on the gondola, but they also frequently shut up. Whether it’s because they’re appreciating nature or just shy talking around strangers, the effect is the same: silent awe, with an unspoken acknowledgment that THIS is part of why we come to Telluride.


Ford v Ferrari (d. James Mangold) — Confident, crowd-pleasing account of some guys (Matt Damon and Christian Bale) trying to help Ford beat Ferrari in auto racing in the ‘60s. The racing is thrilling, the rest is biopic formula with likable performances. In theaters Nov. 15

Waves (d. Trey Edward Shults) — A somber, well-acted drama about a family going through the refiner’s fire, starting with the popular teenage son’s wrestling injuries. There are narrative tricks and experiments with the aspect ratio, but at heart it’s a personal story. In theaters Nov. 1

Tell Me Who I Am (d. Ed Perkins) — Jarring documentary about twin brothers, one of whom came out of an accident with amnesia and relied on the other to fill him in on the details of their lives. A sharply made doc, it doesn’t rely on the surprises in the story, though they don’t hurt. On Netflix in October

The Two Popes (d. Fernando Meirelles) — Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins give wonderful, human performances as Pope Francis and Pope Benedict, the former taking over when the latter resigns. Humorous, endearing, with a clear point of view about the Catholic church but no interest in bashing anyone. Moving, even spiritually affirming. In theaters Nov. 27, Netflix on Dec. 20

Motherless Brooklyn (d. Edward Norton) — Norton shines as a Tourette’s-afflicted P.I. unraveling the murder of his mentor in 1950s New York. Strong Chinatown noir vibe, and it compares favorably. Solid and timely. In theaters Nov. 1

The Assistant (d. Kitty Green) — Molasses-paced drama about a young woman working for an unnamed, unseen movie exec who’s been Harvey Weinsteining other young women. There’s a lot to like in it, including Julia Garner’s lead performance and the gradual way details are revealed, but its 85 minutes felt eternal. Release date TBA

The Climb (d. Michael Angelo Covino) — Droll story of a hapless doormat and his toxic friend, who announces in the first scene that he slept with his fiancée. Their relationship is amusingly downhill from there. Altman-y roaming camera at times; broad slapstick at others. Quite enjoyable. Release date TBA

The Aeronauts (d. Tom Harper) — Loosely fact-based drama about hot-air balloonists Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne trying to set an altitude record in 1862. Great vertiginous aerial footage, but it’s a safe, unimaginative biopic (a Redmayne/Jones specialty), and Redmayne is such a drip. I expect it to win multiple Oscars. In theaters Dec. 6

Uncut Gems (d. Benny and Josh Safdie) — Adam Sandler, channeling Al Pacino, plays a jeweler who runs afoul of sports bookies. Mostly it’s New Yorkers yelling “F*** you!” at one another. Sandler is all-out — easily his best work since Punch-Drunk Love — but the movie drags, confusing loudness with energy.

Judy (d. Rupert Goold) — Renee Zellweger goes for the gusto as a bedraggled Judy Garland in what would be the final year of her life, staging a series of comeback concerts in London. Darci Shaw is also terrific as young Judy (there are flashbacks to The Wizard of Oz era), but once again this is an unwaveringly by-the-numbers awards-bait biopic. In theaters Sept. 27

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (d. Céline Sciamma) — It’s mostly metaphorical burning as a young woman in around the 1700s is sent to a remote island to paint a woman’s portrait; lustful glances (and more) ensue. A restrained, disciplined film, with impeccably framed images and a strong undercurrent of longing. It’s not for me, but it’s well made. In theaters Dec. 6

Marriage Story (d. Noah Baumbach) — Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are fantastic in this compassionate, funny heartbreaker about a couple splitting up. Walks us through every aspect of a divorce — including the part where life gets to be OK again. Great dialogue, great monologues, and great supporting turns by Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta. In theaters Dec. 6, then on Netflix

And it’s not always unspoken. I’ve had many conversations with strangers in Telluride, especially on the gondola, about how beautiful it all is. I don’t think the natural splendor that surrounds us is lost on anyone, except maybe the film industry guy I overheard in a bathroom stall talking loudly in a New York accent about a deal he was making, while he was pooping, then left without washing his hands. I bet that guy misses a lot.

Anyway, since it was the last screening of the weekend, the introduction to Marriage Story at Mr. Jones’ theater had that “aw, it’s over now” vibe, like the last day of summer camp. One of the cheaper passes essentially grants access only to this particular venue, so those passholders must get to know each other pretty well over the course of the weekend. The volunteers, too. A community develops. Some of it carries over from year to year.

When the movie ended and we filed out of the theater, on our way to filing out of Telluride altogether for another 52 weeks, the volunteers were lined up in the lobby to say goodbye. “Thanks for coming,” “See you next year,” etc. They did the same thing last year. I found it oddly moving both times — a potentially meaningless P.R. gesture that felt wholly sincere coming from these kindly volunteers, many of them retired folks, nice grandmas and grandpas here to help out and see some movies.

The fact that I was emotional from the movie I’d just seen (and last year it was Boy Erased!) undoubtedly contributed to the effect, but I felt tremendous affection for these strangers, the volunteers as well as the audience members. It didn’t matter whether I’d gotten to know any of them or had memorable standing-in-line conversations with them. We were all part of Telluride, the hardy souls who pay a lot of money and go through a lot of hassle to watch quality films in an idyllic setting. I’ve never had a bad encounter with any of them. The festival can be a pain, sure, including in ways that other festivals aren’t, but the people are decent, or at least decent at the same rate as people in general.

I went back to the hotel, where there’s a deck with a great view of the mountains (and a golf course, but whatever). The skies were clear, those million stars were out, the moon was a bright crescent like in a cartoon. The films I’d seen over the weekend had addressed a wide range of subjects and shown multiple facets of humanity, and featured many characters for whom I felt sympathy or affinity on a personal level. That’s what great movies do, if you let them. They make you more empathetic. And the combination of seeing great movies in a beautiful setting makes both the movies and the setting seem better — maybe even more so if getting there took some work.

All of this is to say that Telluride isn’t just about seeing movies, almost all of which will be in theaters within four months anyway. It’s the whole experience — a cliché, I know, but it’s true (like most clichés). My bean-counting aside, you can’t put a price on this. That $780 is for (up to) 17 movies, plus trees and mountains and clean air and enthusiastic filmgoers and the gondola and legal weed and lots of dogs and people on mountain bikes and nineteen-dollar hamburgers and quaint shops and the one grocery store and the Labor Day picnic and how it’s brilliantly warm in the sun but if you walk around the corner into the shadows it’s freezing, and everything else. It’s a much, much better experience if you’re rich, but that’s true of most things.

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Eric D. Snider has been a film critic since 1999, first for newspapers (when those were a thing) and then for the internet. He was born and raised in Southern California, lived in Utah in his 20s, then Portland, now Utah again. He is glad to meet you, probably.

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