Telluride Film Fest 2011: Oscar Contenders

Telluride Film Fest directors Julie Huntsinger, Tom Luddy and Gary Meyer have tried to downplay their fest’s status as an awards-season bellwether, nobody is buying it – especially not after last year when The King’s Speech charged out of its Telluride sneak preview screening on a wave of buzz that ultimately swept the Oscar Awards.

As they release the program today for the 38th edition of the four-day festival, which launches Friday, it looks like Huntsinger, Luddy and Meyer have culled another line-up of potential Oscar contenders. David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, Rodrigo Garcia’s Albert Nobbs, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants and Steve McQueen’s Shame are the high-profile fall releases that will start their runs during the 2011 iteration of the Colorado mountain fest.

The program doesn’t yet include the handful of films inevitably slipped in after the festival starts. (Oscar-nominated pics Speech, Black Swan, 127 Hours and Up in the Air all found sneak slots in recent years).

“That process started with Brokeback Mountain and Capote in 2005,” says Meyer. “That was the year that those films broke out and wound up getting a bunch of nominations and becoming very important films. Each year there have been films like that. Certainly, we like to have chosen a couple of films that go on to that kind of success, as long as they also have critical success. But there are films that we chose to pass on that will certainly be in awards season because they weren’t right for us.” 

The relationship between Telluride and the Toronto International Film Festival, which kicks off next Thursday, benefits both festivals as well as filmmakers looking for the strongest possible fall launching pad. Awards-caliber films that have effectively taken advantage of the one-two punch in recent years include Juno (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Up in the Air (2009), and last year’s Speech and Black Swan, the latter of which actually tripled its buzz effect by leading with a Venice premiere.

Specialty-film distributors Sony Pictures Classics (Method, The Last Station), Fox Searchlight (Descendants, Hours, Swan), The Weinstein Co. (Speech) and newer outfits such as Roadside Attractions and Liddell Entertainment (Nobbs) have seen the value in serving up serious, quality films to the discerning viewers of Telluride

Unlike other fests, the official Telluride line-up is not released until the day it starts, and there are no awards given).

“There are some distributors who don’t quite get it,” says Meyer. “I’m relentless with calling these people. I call them regularly throughout the whole summer, in case there’s a change of heart. There are other distributors who understand the relationship of Telluride and Toronto and how Telluride can be a great place to start the film quietly.“

The Garcia-directed Nobbs, which has already garnered buzz for the woman-passing-as-a-man performance of star-co-writer Glenn Close, will play Friday night before moving on to Toronto.

Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen, a Telluride tributee in 2009, star in Method, which will first screen Saturday night before heading north. Cronenberg has been to Telluride with films in the past but won’t be attending this year.