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A Brief Recent History Telluride and How It’s Become So Influential in the Oscar Race

Two weeks from today the Telluride Film Festival begins. It is an exciting time of the year because this festival, more than any other, heralds the arrival of the Oscar race. In the years I’ve been attending Telluride, the Best Picture winner has screened there, either premiering or part of the schedule. The last two Best Picture winners debuted there, with their directors bringing the films along to showcase, 12 Years a Slave and Argo. The Artist was the film everyone was talking about in 2011.

In 2010, The King’s Speech, this Deadline headline says it all, “TELLURIDE FEST CLOSES: Colin Firth Feted As ‘King’s Speech’ Draws Oscar Buzz. In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker did not need Telluride to launch, as it had launched from Toronto the year before to much acclaim before being shelved for the following year. But Slumdog Millionaire premiered at Telluride in 2008. That was when it all began.

Why did the Telluride Film Festival become such a pivotal player in the Oscar race? And why has it stolen Toronto’s thunder? There are several reasons. The first big reason – Oscar changed its date, moving everything back one month. That shifted the entire awards race backwards so that to win Best Picture now you really have to be a known entity by October at the absolute latest. You have to go back to 2004, right around the time of the date change (a year after) to find a film that won being released later in the year, Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby.

The date change shifted focus off of the very end of the year and put it right around the beginning of the fall season. Because everything happens so fast you want your place in line early. Either bloggers will hold your place for you because they know you’re coming (we call these “sight unseen predictions”) or you will land your place at a festival, Cannes at the earliest (No Country for Old Men, The Artist) or Telluride (Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, Argo, 12 Years a Slave).

The second reason is that the audience at Telluride is smaller, more selective than that at Cannes or Toronto, both of which are open to anyone who can get credentialed. Telluride you have to pay to play – around $750 for a festival pass. That means, either your outlet finds it worthwhile to send you or you are someone like me, willing to pay your own way for a chance to maybe glimpse the Oscar favorite early.

The first Oscar blogger I can remember attending the festival was Kris Tapley from InContention. He smartly began attending Telluride because it wasn’t as big as Toronto and that made it more doable. Also sites like Collider, First Showing and Slashfilm had already been attending by then so if you were a young film blogger you might happen to Telluride on your festival circuit. But Oscar blogging is different from film blogging. You’re not just there to hype movies. You’re there to hype a specific kind of movie, a movie that industry voters might like.

After Slumdog’s ascent more Oscar bloggers began paying attention to Telluride and now, everyone goes. David Poland, Anne Thompson, Jeff Wells, Pete Hammond, Scott Feinberg – the whole thing.

Telluride is one of the more pleasurable festivals. It’s beautiful, quiet, peaceful – you can walk everywhere. Pot smoke wafts through the streets. Great coffee, great beer. If I could live there all year round I would. The volunteers are friendly. The attendees are badged marrieds, singles and seniors all there for the love of film. Riding back on the gondolas with them is always the most fun.

I can’t wait for my first morning screening up at the Chuck Jones, with a hot cup of coffee in my hands. Last year, there was a live band playing outside the Coen brothers tribute for Inside Llewyn Davis. The bottom line is that — happy attendees usually make for more kind reception of the films. In other words, even the worst movies play well at Telluride – and great movies? They get a lot of bang for their buck up there in the mountains with all of those happy people.

Finally, the biggest reason is the selection committee. I can count on one hand the bad movies I’ve seen at Telluride. They pick good ones. They have good taste. If you add all of these elements up together you can see why Telluride is one of the choice spots for launching a film headed for the Oscar race.

Of course, this isn’t their intention and many bristle at the suggestion. There is always the desire to keep Telluride a best kept secret so that it isn’t mobbed and overrun. It’s expensive to stay there and near impossible to find lodging. The chances of it becoming a mob scene are slim.

The reason Toronto falls just short of Telluride is that it’s so big a small contender can get lost in the shuffle. It used to be a movie that did really well at Toronto could be launch into the Oscar race with ease. But Toronto comes later, almost too late to impact the Oscar race, believe it or not. There are so many movies playing, so many bloggers and critics and journalists covering them, it’s hard to pool the enthusiasm in one place.

However, that doesn’t mean it still can’t launch a formidable contender. Silver Linings Playbook got its boost from Toronto.

Every year is different. 2014’s story has not yet been written. We don’t know if Telluride will once again produce a Best Picture winner. The New York Film Festival has several key films headed into the race.

What we do know is that time is of the essence where these awards are concerned. The voting and choosing starts early. The grooves are worn early. Once they are set in motion it becomes harder to derail them.

Then again, films can’t be hyped too early either. A movie like the Grand Budapest Hotel came out so early it’s hard to imagine it surviving on through the end of the year. Early films can get forgotten, even if they are hyped to no end by bloggers and critics. There are many variables. Things can shift. We might see our first late-release winner this year since 2003.

Either way, we’re just about two weeks away from having a pretty good idea where this year’s Best Picture race is going.