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Will coronavirus shut down film festivals? The Telluride fest says it’s on

Telluride Film Festival at night
The Telluride Film Festival will go on as planned.
(Telluride Film Festival)

Bringing a bit of clarity to an otherwise deeply uncertain fall for Hollywood, the Telluride Film Festival announced Friday that it will go on as planned over Labor Day weekend.

The coronavirus outbreak has upended the film industry in recent months, with movie theaters shuttered indefinitely, release schedules scrambled and production all but shut down. In announcing their intention to press ahead, the organizers of Telluride, which has become a key buzz-making stop on the annual awards season calendar, acknowledged that this year’s gathering “will not be a business as usual event.”

Expanding by a day to allow for more social distancing, the 47th edition of the festival will begin on Sept. 3 instead of the previously scheduled Sept. 4 and run until Sept. 7. “We’re hard at work to provide a safe and joyous environment that will include an extra day to allow more space within and between screenings, along with all of the necessary safety tweaks and adjustments you’ve become very familiar with, regardless of where you call home,” the festival said in an email to prospective attendees.

Recognizing the unease many may feel about attending the festival after months of alarming news about the pandemic, Telluride organizers promised that safety would be paramount. “We are not ignorant of the devastation facing the world,” festival organizers wrote. “We feel the fear and distress too. This is why we are committed to observing all guidance as suggested by the consensus of voices of the scientific community with whom we are consulting now.”

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Set in a picturesque box canyon in the Colorado Rockies, Telluride draws some 5,000 attendees every year, including scores of filmmakers, stars and movie executives. Though it has helped launch films like “Birdman,” “Moonlight” and “Lady Bird” to future awards glory, Telluride proudly clings to its intimate, decidedly lo-fi, paparazzi- and red-carpet-free vibe. One of its venues is a middle school gym, another an ice-skating rink.

Given the remoteness, many film industry professionals attending the festival arrive via chartered flights. The festival said it would add an extra chartered flight from New York to help East Coast attendees.

In vowing to move ahead, Telluride joins the Venice Film Festival, which announced this week that it will also run as planned from Sept. 2 to 12. The Toronto Film Festival, the biggest of all the fall festivals, has yet to announce its plans for this September’s edition. The New York Film Festival announced this month it was exploring “a combination of both in-person and digital experiences, as circumstances allow” for its gathering, which is scheduled for Sept. 25 to Oct. 11.

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Still, the pandemic has already wrought major changes to this year’s awards season. This month’s Cannes Film Festival was canceled, and the film academy loosened its eligibility rules to allow films that debut via streaming to compete for the first time for the best picture Oscar.

Given the health concerns, it is far from certain how many may choose not to attend this year’s Telluride Film Festival. Indeed, it is unclear at this point to what extent studios and distributors will decide to bring films out on the fall festival circuit as they traditionally have. Netflix, which has been an increasingly potent presence in the festivals in recent years, has already indicated that it will be sitting this year out.

“For those of you who opt to not join us, we absolutely understand and support this decision,” Telluride organizers said in their email Friday. “Your reasons surely involve heightened personal health concerns and you must do what is the very best for you. We trust and hope you’ll be back with us the next time we can provide optimal conditions for the SHOW. May that be soon.”

In the face of such concerns, Telluride organizers said they were driven to push on nevertheless by their undimmed passion for film.

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“We see clearly the obstacles that are cruelly, tragically and stubbornly in our way this year in orders of magnitude our dear founders might not ever have envisioned,” organizers said. “But there has been a determination to proceed, in large part fueled by the voices in our community. This community understands that movies really are empathy machines, that when we assemble to witness the glories of cinema together, something magical happens. We humbly suggest that our world needs the light of cinema and its beautiful byproducts of compassion and emotional storytelling alchemy like never before.”


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