The Good, The Bad, and the Soggy — 42nd Telluride Film Festival

Yes, they call it The Show. As in, let’s go out to the barn and put on show!  With 800 plus volunteers and staff and 9 venues plus an open-air screening and discussion space in a park, TFF should really be referred  to as The Circus!SHOWMedallion_FinalAs a returning volunteer, part of the Show Corps, I get an insiders view of the machinations that this festival undertakes every year.  The crew transforms the small town of Telluride into a showplace for film.  They create a theater out of an ice rink, three theaters inside schools and every meeting hall and library screening room is utilized.  Banners and flags line the streets, lights are hung everywhere and concession stands are created in parking lots.  There’s even the Big Tent; the Brigadoon, that is the gathering spot for Passholders, Patrons and Sponsors.

This year there was a great App called “The Show” that was a big help in navigating the festival.  There was a calendar feature with TBA’s loaded every night between 8-9pm.  The films were listed alphabetically and by theater with a handy Talking Heads section for Conversations and discussions in the park. The best feature is Show Seats: a reckoning of the real time availability of seats in a particular theater based on how many “Q” cards have been handed out. A great gauge for whether a trek down to the Palm theater is a waste of time or if there’s a chance to see the next screening.


The poster and  t-shirt have a great design and color, with a bear wandering into town to check out the old-fashioned theater venue.  Apropos, as there were bear sightings early in the week.  Badges also featured upgraded design with photos more prominent and bar codes for scanning at theaters for the new app feature, Show Seats.

Besides the two days of on again, off again rain, what really put a damper on this year’s festival was staff morale.  Having not found a space big enough to host our Clubhouse this year, the festival decided to do away with volunteer meals.  This meant there was no gathering spot with free wi-fi and clean bathrooms, no place to retreat for breaks and to build camaraderie with other staff….but also a general feeling that sponsor dollars were being spent on a $10,000 cake while staff was expected to be happy with 10% off at two markets.

Training Day staff meal was pathetic.  A 45-minute wait for a food truck meal of veggie burger or meat patty, fries, salad and curry soup with crowded benches in an empty lot.  Food was served with garbage and recycling bins lining the waiting area.  There was another meal for everyone but the amount of food at the Opening Night Feed was embarrassing: one skewer of veggies or chicken, a corn muffin, a grilled corn cob and a delicious jicama salad that was doled out sparsely.  The Labor Day picnic had more salad options but the ice cream ran out quickly. When volunteers have traveled so far and many of them are camping, having no staff meals meant some grumpy workers!

There was also far less training.  New staff were given general orientation but at the All Staff meeting (which lasted 45 minutes last year), there was a teary welcome and acknowledgement of the sacrifices and hard work put in by staff by Julie Huntsinger, festival director–with no mention of the lack of meals and the short notice of that decision.  Then a benediction from festival patron Ken Burns, a heart-felt message from long-time staffer,  Peter Sellars and a staff photo.  As we gathered in groups divided by venues, there was some quick direction by each manager and that was that.  All of concessions was grouped into one large cluster outside with the manager quietly handing out manager binders and no mention of any new changes or updates or introductions.

The rain must’ve kept folks away the first two days, when staff was told to stay away from premieres, because both Sunday and Monday, all the films seemed to be at capacity.  Staff was shut out.  I stood in three lines at three of the smaller theaters and was turned away.  Even some of the larger venues like the Palm and Chuck Jones had to turn both staff and Passholders away.

The festival went cashless this year.  Meaning that to purchase concessions or single film tickets, you needed plastic.  The problem with this new policy is that the iPad were difficult to charge, did not always get on a wi-fi signal and ticket sales had to have a signature. When there are 70 people waiting to get into the Warner Hertzog theater and there’s only ONE person with one iPad, well, you can imagine that it was a long wait.  And the show started before everyone who wanted a ticket to purchase one.  Empty seats in the theater and unhappy festival attendees–what an awful combination.  I hope there’s a solution next year!

Outdoor screenings and talks were drippy affairs and with no screen up to project the discussions on….fans had to strain their necks on the sidelines or crowd the stage at the end to actually see the people on stage.  With Amazing Grace cancelled, the documentary, Sherpa was given a boost by being moved indoors to fill that spot on the program.  The final screening outdoors of Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, an experimental autobiography/meditation on death was sparsely attended.  And many staff were just too exhausted and/or fed-up to attend the Closing Night Party.

Were there less films in this year’s program or just fewer standouts?  Besides the big Hollywood screenings: Carol, Black Mass, Spotlight, Suffragette, Steve Jobs, Room and 45 Years,there seemed to be fewer documentaries. The festival buzz was strong for Rams, a dark comedy about Icelandic sheep farmers and Ixcanal, the Guatemalan coming-of-age film about a young girl and her parents.

I adore the newest Pixar short, Sanjay’s Super Heros and enjoyed seeing a new Bill Plympton short.  I was sad to not see the Student Short program which I heard was outstanding, but glad to miss some of the more esoteric fare and the avante garde cinema like The Picture, with random close-ups paired with a cacophony of sound created by the Alloy Orchestra.  It was first time I saw entire rows of film-goers exiting the theater.

More about the films in another post…suffice it to say, it was an off year for this film festival.

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