Telluride Film Festival Navigates a Pandemic

48th Telluride Film Festival back in town after being cancelled in 2020

The 48th Telluride Film Festival navigates a pandemic. 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 a 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 all missed having some of our Patron Saints of the Film Festival like Ken Burns, Werner Herzog or Festival Founder Tom Luddy, to cheer us on. COVID-19 concerns and/or illness kept 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.

Incorporating the Meow Wolf poster into a mask image, this was enforced in all indoor locations

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. There were a few false positives reported through the Curative Testing facility but due to HIPA concerns, I don’t know if anyone was turned away from collecting their passes.

There was no social distancing enforcement which would’ve been nearly impossible in some of the smaller venues and in the lines outside the venues. It was really an exercise in trust and reliance on festival goers following the rules. There were moments when festival guests stepped up to the microphones before or after a film and removed their masks to speak and that made those moments that much more special.

Waiting in line with 400 of my closest friends…only to be shut out at the Palm Theatre

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 Elk 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.

The Abel Gance Open Air Cinema sponsored by Ralph and Ricky Lauren, Elks Park screening of “The River”

There were a few missed opportunities in merchandising. No branded masks. No water bottles include in staff backpacks even though no water stations were provided due to COVID concerns. There were 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’ve rediced contamination by all those non-compostable plates. Instead of $380 branded cashmere sweaters, a cozy film festival blanket or foldable lawn chair for outdoor screenings might’ve been sold at the Brigadoon tent.

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. Did we need those additional screenings of “The French Dispatch” when so many people were still trying to get into a screening of “Belfast”?

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 and exasperation 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 they were in attendance at film conversations in the park.

Kodi Smit-McPhee, Benedict Cumberbatch, Director Jane Campion, Kirsten Dunst at “The Power of the Dog” screening in the Werner Herzog theater (a converted ice skaing rink)

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 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.

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