Telluride Film Festival: Origins

Telluride Film Festival

Telluride Film Festival 2014 opens Friday.

Editor’s note: As the Telluride Film Festival unveils its 2014 edition this Labor Day weekend, we publish this piece on its origins. This interview is excerpted from the chapter “Programming the Old and the New: Bill and Stella Pence on the Telluride Film Festival,” from Coming Soon to a Festival Near You: Programming Film Festivals, ed. Jeffrey Ruoff, St Andrews: St Andrews Film Books, Scotland, 2012, pp. 135-154.

Bill and Stella Pence have extensive backgrounds in film exhibition and distribution. In the early 1960s, Bill was a pioneer in the distribution of specialized and foreign films in small U.S. college towns. He became vice-president and part owner of Janus Films during its transition from distributing current foreign films to specializing in international classic films (1965-78) and, with Stella, headed national theatrical sales. Bill created the “films in repertory” concept of distribution, which included the highly-successful “Janus Film Festivals” that toured major cities and college towns in the 1960s and 1970s. He was instrumental in the creation of Janus’ extensive library of classic motion pictures, which served as the foundation of the Criterion Collection. In 1979, the Pences founded Kino International, still a leader today (under different management) in specialized distribution in all media.

A film collector, Bill Pence built his first theater in 1965 and, with Stella, owned and operated more than a dozen art and commercial theaters in the Rocky Mountain region until the 1980s. In 1983, he was appointed Director of Film at the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and remains at that post today, programming year-round film series. Stella is a trustee of the Flaherty Film Seminar and both are advisors to the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity. They have also consulted with Turner Classic Movies in the creation and programming of its TCM Classic Film Festival, launched in Hollywood in April 2010.

In 1974, Bill and Stella Pence co-founded the Telluride Film Festival with James Card, director of the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, and Tom Luddy, director of the Pacific Film Archive at the University of California at Berkeley. For thirty-three years, until 2006, Bill served as the co-director/president and Stella as the managing director of the festival.[i]



Jeffrey Ruoff: How did the Telluride film festival start?

Bill Pence: Well, that first year, 1974, none of us knew anything. We expected this to be a one-time thing. The idea for the festival came from James Card, the film curator at George Eastman House. He was one of the three most influential founders of the international film preservation and archive movement, with Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris and Iris Barry of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Card had a romance with the old West: he imagined himself being in one of those old theaters in the mining towns where Lily Langtry performed, like in The Westerner (William Wyler, U.S., 1940) with Walter Brennan. Jim was a fellow film collector, and he came to visit Stella and me in the early 1970s, when we ran a chain of movie theaters in the Rocky Mountains. He brought some film prints, which played in our opera house in Aspen, Colorado, and the next night in our opera house in Telluride. The program included two silent films, Lonesome (Pál Fejös, U.S., 1928) and a Japanese film, A Page of Madness (Kurutta ippêji, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926). In Aspen, the theater was between fifty and one hundred percent full. In Telluride, the place was jammed; all 232 seats. Of course, there was nothing else to do in Telluride.

Stella Pence: We had a captive audience of disaffected hippies, alternative types; people who had moved from the cities to eke out their lives in a hardscrabble community. Most of them painfully well educated. The garbage man probably had three PhDs. Telluride was a town in transition, just right for a film festival. The ski area hadn’t been built. Lots of the young people were there.

Bill Pence: At the time, I was one of the partners of Janus Films, and Stella and I ran the theatrical division from Colorado. As a result, we knew film exhibitors in art theaters across the country. We presented Janus Film Festivals. Traditionally, they were nine-week festivals: a week of Bergman, a week of Fritz Lang, a week of Kurosawa, a week of Truffaut. So we already knew by phone the best theater owner in Atlanta, and Bob Laemmle in L.A., and Mel Novikoff in San Francisco. When we decided to do a festival in Telluride, Stella and I would say, ‘Gee, we’re having a party, this is going to be fun, you know? Francis Coppola, Leni Riefenstahl, and Gloria Swanson are going to be there.’ And luckily, a lot of these exhibitors came. I think this planted the seeds that Telluride, from the beginning, was a festival for cinéphiles who cared about and loved the movies.

Stella Pence: The exhibitors’ outreach into their own communities helped us. There were a lot of people from Denver. Do you remember that first year we ran that bus from Denver?

Bill Pence: Yes, exactly. We offered a deal for that first festival: you could get lodging, full pass for Telluride, and your transportation to and from Denver—fifty dollars a person. And you got to meet Coppola and Swanson. We were worried it was too high-priced.

Stella Pence: One of the things that’s interesting to me about Telluride is that we never started it with high ideals. We were not interested in increasing tourism. We certainly had no great desire to spread the word about how fabulous film was. We mostly wanted to have a big party. James Card came and said, ‘Wow, this could be really fun.’ He brought us Leni Riefenstahl.

Bill Pence: Card also brought Tom Luddy, director of the Pacific Film Archive at the University of California at Berkeley. Tom is probably world cinema’s best matchmaker. His phone directory of movie people is infamous.

Stella Pence: We thought it would be a one-time, cool event. But it just kept going, took on a life of its own.

Bill Pence: Card was a roué, a man who had an affair with Louise Brooks. Tom and I loved the balance of the threesome. In the first couple of years, Card was silent film, classic film; Luddy was the future of film, what’s happening now; and I was sort of the entrepreneur in the middle, balancing both sides.

Ruoff: What festivals had you attended before starting Telluride?

Bill Pence: A now-defunct film festival in Aspen, the San Francisco International Film Festival a number of times, Filmex in Los Angeles a number of times, Venice, Cannes, New York, the Flaherty.

Stella Pence: The Cork Film Festival in Ireland. Tom has been to a lot more of the exotic ones.

Bill Pence: For us, the key ones were San Francisco, which so influenced our tributes, and Filmex, where we learned how eclectic and exciting a festival can be and how much showmanship is involved. San Francisco was the pioneer of great tributes. Unfortunately, they would take all day. I mean, for example, a Howard Hawks tribute would come after seeing eight full features. A Girl in Every Port (U.S., 1928), Rio Bravo (U.S., 1959), Hatari! (U.S., 1962), and The Big Sleep (U.S., 1946), or whatever. You’d have to sit there for hours. But how wonderful it was to be there with John Ford, Howard Hawks, and David Lean. And, if you talk about a sense of family, nobody does that better than Cork, where everybody sees a film together, then goes to the festival club for drinks. I also liked the Flaherty seminar ideal of a family, with civilized discourse, in a remote, quiet place.


Ruoff: And perhaps the excitement of Cannes?

Stella Pence: I don’t think Cannes is exciting, I think it’s terrifying, frenetic beyond belief. On the weekend, you literally can’t walk down the Croisette, it’s so crowded. And there are police cars everywhere, things are roped off, it’s a miserable place to be. Unless you’re doing business and you have to be there. Or unless you’re in a suite in the Carlton Hotel with more money than God.

Bill Pence: In the thirty-plus years that we have been going to Cannes, I don’t know the total number of celebrity actors and directors we have seen, but not many. Truffaut once gave you a rose, Stella, in an elevator. But we have seen fewer in number over the course of thirty years than an off-the-street, regular guy would experience at Telluride. Because the talent are all kept with their entourages away from people at Cannes. One of the big, magic things about Telluride is that you’re bumping into these people all the time.

Stella Pence: I think the magical thing about Cannes is the red carpet. By nine in the morning the barriers are in place and people are lining up.

Bill Pence: But those aren’t the film lovers, those are the French people.

Stella Pence: And there’s lots of screaming and flashbulbs going off.


Ruoff: The mix of old and new films is really one of the novel, defining features of Telluride. What was exciting about this mix?

Bill Pence: There were very few festivals in this country in the 1970s, and the big ones were pretty much all about new films. We began with Jim Card and Tom Luddy, two archivists. The first year, 1974, a lot of the festival was in Card’s hands. And his shtick was the classic cinema, older cinema, German films.

Stella Pence: Bill was the sole showman. And all his life he’s been in love with older films, so Telluride began with people who were enamored with classic films, as opposed to being star-struck by new movies. We started from a position of zero strength, and a lot of what we could get were older films that we admired. It changed a lot as the festival grew and became bigger and more complicated, as the town grew and became more expensive, less funky.

Bill Pence: Less edgy.

Stella Pence: More commercial, more high-end. The festival became more powerful, and we could get more new films to go with the old, good films.

Bill Pence: In terms of programming, initially Telluride was much more in the direction of the George Eastman House kind of programming—rare treasures and undiscovered masterpieces, King Vidor, Gloria Swanson, Henry King—than it was contemporary filmmakers. That took a long time to change: the balancing act between new films, for example, which had no priority in the beginning, with the focus on retrospectives, rediscoveries, and restorations. Both have been an important part of Telluride. Today I think the balance is sixty/forty: sixty percent new films, forty percent revivals.

Ruoff: Telluride really participated in the rediscovery of silent and classic films, didn’t it?

Bill Pence: When Jim Card left, we went to Bill Everson, another classic cinema guy, for the same reason. Everson was a wonderful man—easy collaborator, delightful to work with. He shared classic films at the festival for over a decade.

Stella Pence: Bill Everson had a huge following at Telluride. His films were always shown in the community centre because they were on 16mm, from his own collection. He wore a leather cowboy hat, an Aussie hat, and a suit and tie. He was the only person in Telluride who ever wore a suit and tie. He’d go down the street with his 16mm film reels under his arms. He was much loved in Telluride.

Bill Pence: If you were to ask me what the watershed event for Telluride was, I would say the revival of Napoléon (Napoleon, Abel Gance, France, 1927) in 1979. That screening changed the attitude towards film preservation worldwide, of film archiving and silent film. Francis Coppola had his father write a score that travelled internationally to the world’s biggest arenas and palaces, to full houses, starting in 1980 at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. That really marked us.

Stella Pence: It used to be easy to fill the house with silent films or lost foreign films, difficult films. It’s much harder now. The audience has changed substantially at Telluride and the accessibility of films is everywhere. I mean, you press a button on your computer and you can get virtually anything that you want to see. Consequently, the desire to program those difficult kinds of things is waning a little bit.


Ruoff: What were you looking for with the tributes in the early years and afterwards? What were the ones that most pleased you?

Bill Pence: First of all, the tributes really identify and stamp what Telluride’s all about: the art of film, the appreciation of film. When James Card came, and he wanted to give tributes to Swanson, Riefenstahl, and Coppola simultaneously, it just seemed like a perfect way to do it. Riefenstahl’s appearance generated a lot of controversy and got us on the map immediately. Now, tributes are everywhere. But when we started Telluride, some of these greats were alive—what would you have given to talk to Jeanne Moreau, Lillian Gish, Hal Roach, Fritz Lang, John Ford or John Wayne?

Stella Pence: The tone for that was set the first year. Coppola represented the new and current, Swanson was the classic Hollywood, and Riefenstahl was the one you hadn’t heard about.

Bill Pence: In terms of tributes, the ones that I think are the most perfect are the ones that are rare. In the early years, I think it would have been Chuck Jones. He would have been pretty much forgotten by most people in 1976. Michael Powell. I asked Powell years later what Telluride did for him, and he said, ‘There was life before Telluride, but life after was much different. I was looked upon as a film director once again.’ It was always wonderful to spring a surprise on the audience. ‘Where in the hell did they come up with that?’ One of the best tribute ideas came from casting director Fred Roos, who suggested a tribute to the American character actor, to the profession. There they were at Telluride 1981: John Carradine, Elisha Cook, Margaret Hamilton, Woody Strode. It was a tribute to that profession, and so to have those faces all within a three-block area in Telluride was really extraordinary. After that, one of my favorite tributes was Joel McCrea, who’d always been an elusive figure. Never liked to mix with the public. We found him at his ranch, somewhere between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The process of getting him to Telluride was like a dance. I’d say two of the defining tributes were Abel Gance and Andrei Tarkovsky, which I think was probably Telluride at its best.

Ruoff: How did you manage to bring Tarkovsky in 1984?

Bill Pence: We were persistent. It took years. Finally, it became possible to bring Tarkovsky after Nostalghia (Nostalgia, Italy/USSR, 1983); he had a visa that would permit him to come to the U.S. It was really a very brave thing for him to come. He put his freedom on the line. Then, at a panel for the public, on Main Street—this was not for the press—came the famous debate between Tarkovsky and Richard Widmark. The art vs. commerce debate.

Stella Pence: Yes, what was the origin of art? Was art born in sorrow and sin, à la Tarkovsky, or was film for fun, à la Widmark? It was wonderful.

Bill Pence: Over the years, tributes became less important to the festival itself. They were very important to Tom and me because they were promises to the pass-holders that, although they didn’t know the program, they were for sure going to have three major tributes.

Stella Pence: In the early years, Tom started a tradition in which he would fly to Las Vegas, about a week before the festival started, and pick up a bunch of filmmakers, often Eastern European filmmakers. Tarkovsky was on one of those journeys. Tom would load up in a van and drive everyone through Las Vegas, through Monument Valley, up through the American West to Telluride. As you can imagine, they were dumbstruck.

Ruoff: Unlike most festivals, Telluride doesn’t announce its program in advance. How did this come about?

Bill Pence: We announced our program ahead of time only for the first three years. The thing that precipitated the change was in the third year. Jeanne Moreau was invited as a tribute guest. She accepted. Then, the week of the festival, she had to go into oral surgery and couldn’t make it. We felt we had egg on our face. As people came into town for the festival, the headline on the Telluride Times newspaper read, ‘Moreau cancels’. That was the final straw. I said, ‘Tom, we are never going to announce our program again!’ It has paid enormous dividends. It remains almost unique to Telluride. Not announcing creates a certain flexibility when hot films are available at the last minute, or people cancel whom we thought we had on board. It’s also part of the egalitarianism since no one has any advance information.

Stella Pence: As a result, we’re very tough on a new film being a North American première. It’s a pact with our audience. We don’t tell them what’s coming, but they can rest assured they won’t have seen what’s on the slate before.

Bill Pence: I think part of the mystique of the Telluride Film Festival is anything could happen. We can fill in a spot that’s been cancelled, like five days before. It provides the audience with a great sense of anticipation. It enables us to have a spot for an important film that arrives at the last minute. Often some of the hottest films—Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, U.S., 2005) or Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, UK, 2008)—aren’t even finished until the very, very last moment.

Ruoff: What has been Telluride’s relationship with the press?

Bill Pence: Difficult, although we have received good press over the years.

Stella Pence: For starters, there’s no such thing as a press pass. Some festivals in the past even had paid press junkets. At Telluride, the press was required to buy a pass just like everybody else. Although we’ve always had a respectable amount of press, it’s never been a love fest. There are no special arrangements made for the press, there are no press rooms.

Bill Pence: They’re not guaranteed an interview. We certainly don’t do screeners so the press can see things in advance. One result was, when Clint Eastwood came, or Helena Bonham-Carter, they didn’t feel they had interview obligations. They could let their hair down and enjoy themselves like other pass-holders.

Stella Pence: I think that we didn’t want the festival ever to be about hype. And don’t forget we thought it was only going to be one year. We’ve always felt that it was better to under-promise and over-deliver. Also, we never wanted it to be about the press; we didn’t want the press to overwhelm the film. We were fearsome about entourages. Telluride was not about your publicist’s fourth secretary from the left. We wanted to try to keep it as pure as possible, keep it about the films. We were significantly unpleasant to producers for years. After the audience, the people who were important were first the directors and the actors. Also, we never wanted it to be a festival for rich people. Unfortunately, it has turned out that way because of the economics of the town.

Ruoff: For whom is Telluride programmed and designed?

Bill Pence: The audience. The pass-holder. We’ve always felt that way from the very start. At the top of our mission statement, in fact, it says that the pass-holder is king. At festivals I attended before we undertook Telluride, I always noticed the difference in the way that audiences and press and filmmakers were treated. For instance, I remember a screening at the old film festival in Aspen, in the 1960s. Showtime was 8:00 p.m. The theater was full, except for the best seats in the house. And it wasn’t until 8:25 p.m. that this entourage of festival sponsors, rich people in Aspen, and a couple of the directors, came and sat down in those prime seats, so that ‘we the people’ could …

Stella Pence: … admire them as they came in.

Bill Pence: That made an impression on us. Also, every time I attend Cannes, which is a festival for the press, I note that everyone else is a second-class citizen. At Telluride, we try to treat everyone equally, to create an egalitarian film festival experience.

[i] Jeffrey Ruoff is a film historian, documentary filmmaker, and associate professor of Film and Media Studies at Dartmouth College. He met Bill Pence in 2001, when Ruoff came to teach at Dartmouth in New Hampshire, and has enjoyed many fruitful interactions with him. More recently, Ruoff had the pleasure of meeting Stella Pence. Ruoff interviewed Bill and Stella Pence on July 13 and July 15, 2011, in Wilson Hall at Dartmouth. Martha Howard transcribed the recorded discussions with speed and aplomb. Ruoff edited the complete transcript, which was checked for accuracy by the Pences.


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