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Category: Telluride Film Festival

Film fest update: Venice, Telluride and Toronto


As the light of summer fades into the somber moods of fall (assuming, of course, that said season actually occurs in your part of the country), we take time to not only reflect on the passage of time and the end of carefree days, but on the absolute orgy of film festivals that erupt around the globe from September through the following spring. We offer the following as a round-up, if you will, of what's happened at Venice and Telluride, and what to expect at Toronto and elsewhere in the weeks to come. Score cards are not necessary, but they do help. 

More after the break, of course.

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Telluride Film Festival: An inside look at Disney animation

Waking Most everyone who follows the movie business knows that between 1984 and 1994 the Walt Disney Co. relaunched its animation business and rode the success of movies such as “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” to establish a creative and financial monopoly. The Telluride Film Festival documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty” offers an insiders’ account not only of the soup-to-nuts animation overhaul, but also the private battles — most famously, between Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg — that led to the dream team’s breakup and the end of Disney animation’s domination.

While can’t-miss Pixar Animation Studios is clearly the prevailing creative and commercial leader in animation these days, what Disney accomplished in that 10-year span is perhaps even more remarkable, particularly given the division’s preceding slump. As “Waking Sleeping Beauty” reminds us, just as Eisner and Katzenberg were joining Disney to turn the ailing studio around, Disney’s animated “The Black Cauldron” was beaten at the box office by “The Care Bears Movie.” As badly as the Disney animated films were performing, morale inside the unit was possibly even worse — there was little leadership, and the animators were eventually kicked off Disney’s Burbank lot, to shabby offices in Glendale.

Katzenberg was up for the challenge, and pushed the animators harder than they’d ever been driven — calling staff meetings before the sun was up, and insisting that filmmakers work weekends. Despite (or perhaps because of) his incessant prodding, the studio rather quickly turned itself around. But the professional and personal price was high: Katzenberg, who ran the studio; Eisner, Disney’s chairman; and vice-chairman Roy Disney all clashed, particularly over who deserved (and claimed) credit for the turnaround. When Disney president Frank Wells died in 1994, the studio lost its peacekeeper, and the internal squabbling soon boiled over. Before long, Katzenberg would help form DreamWorks, which helped topple Disney off the animation mountaintop.

“Waking Sleeping Beauty” was made by Don Hahn and Peter Schneider, who are scarcely anthropologists stumbling across an interesting uprising. Hahn, who directed and produced the film, produced “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” while Schneider, who produced the movie, was the animation president during its resurrection. The documentary also was financed and will be distributed by Disney next April. 

The filmmakers insist — and the resulting movie proves — that they didn’t tread lightly. There’s a scene in “Waking Sleeping Beauty” where you find out that Katzenberg wanted to kill the signature song, “Part of Your World,” from “The Little Mermaid.” One animator calls Katzenberg a “maniac” (maybe he’ll consider it a compliment), Schneider lashes out at the staff over a spoof memo, animators consider “The Lion King” a potential flop, Eisner says he “didn’t care about credit” (far less believable than a singing Jamaican crab) and the original concept for “Beauty and the Beast” didn’t include songs.

If there’s one thing that broke the company apart, the movie suggests, it’s that they succeeded too well.

“We were hyper aware of not making a puff piece,” Hahn says. Adds Schneider: “And we don’t think it is.”

-- John Horn

Director Don Hahn (left) and producer Peter Schneider from "Waking Sleeping Beauty." Photo credit: courtesy "Waking Sleeping Beauty."


Telluride Film Festival: 'The Road' looks to get on track

Theroad2 Film festivals often fill an invaluable role in establishing a film's critical momentum and seeding the clouds for good word-of-mouth. The Telluride Film Festival has played an important recent role in that regard, helping build attention for "Slumdog Millionaire," "Juno" and "Capote," among a number of other critical and commercial hits.

The struggling Weinstein Co. is hoping Telluride will be especially kind to "The Road," after the movie about a father and his son trying to navigate a perilous post-apocalyptic America debuted at the Venice Film Festival to polarized reviews. Equally important, director John Hillcoat and star Viggo Mortensen (honored in a sold-out Telluride tribute tonight) are hopeful their Telluride screenings can establish what the film really is, as opposed to what its early advertising materials have suggested: a moving story of a father's unrelenting love for his son rather than a "Mad Max" action thriller as the movie's opening trailer misleadingly implied.

When the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic bestseller debuted in Venice, it received far more positive notices than bad. The Times of London gave the film four out of five stars, as did The Independent, which said Hillcoat "made a film of power and sensitivity that works remarkably well on the big screen." Equally (or just slightly less) enthusiastic reviews were posted by Screen International, The Guardian and The Hollywood Reporter.

The road But Hollywood's other trade newspaper, Variety, savaged the film -- an ominous sign for a film postponed by production delays from a 2008 release that some people believe is a contender for this year's best picture Oscar race. 

"Directors have a very unhealthy habit of paying the most attention to the most negative reviews," Hillcoat said of Variety's defenestration. "That was very disappointing, especially because I have since heard that he hadn't read the book."

If there was nothing else to say about the Variety review, there was much to do about the film's emotional pull. Hillcoat refused to second-guess the film's early advertising materials, hopeful they would expand "The Road's" audience beyond the relatively small circle of McCarthy fans. "This film is about human goodness and what makes us special," the Australian filmmaker said. "Because it's set in a harrowing world, that's only to highlight why this relationship is so special."

-- John Horn

 Photos of Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee from "The Road" courtesy of the Weinstein Co.

Telluride Film Festival: Jason Reitman returns flying high

Clooney When director Jason Reitman brought "Juno" to the Telluride Film Festival two years ago, it was the start of something big. The comedy not only went on to become a break-out hit (domestic gross: $143.5 million) but also brought screenwriter Diablo Cody the best original screenplay Oscar.

Reitman was back in the Colorado resort town Saturday night with a sneak preview of "Up in the Air," and, judging from the audience reaction at its first, sold-out showing, the 31-year-old filmmaker may have another critical hit for a follow-up.

Unlike "Juno," which featured a cast of unfamiliar names in an unfamiliar story about teen pregnancy, Reitman's new film stars George Clooney and is adapted (albeit very loosely) from Walter Kirn's acclaimed existential novel of the same name.  Reitman, who shares screenplay credit with Sheldo Turner, retained only the central character (Clooney's Ryan Bingham) and central conceit (Bingham is a frequent flyer-obsessed corporate downsizer) from Kirn's 2001 bestseller.

Bingham travels more than 300 days a year, and his job isn't pretty. Even as he racks up boatloads of miles, upgrades and loyalty program honors, Bingham is flying around the country to tell people they have lost their jobs. (Reitman's film includes video interviews of real people who recently lost their jobs as some of Bingham's victims, and the movie's closing song was submitted by an out-of-work musician.)

Where Kirn's novel chronicled Bingham's increasingly tenuous grasp on reality, Reitman's film adds a number of characters (primarily a young associate played by "Twilight's" Anna Kendrick and a love interest by "The Departed's" Vera Farmiga) and subplots to accentuate a different aspect of Bingham's life: his emotional separation from other people and his own self. Reitman said the idea that Bingham was militantly single was part of what attracted Clooney, perhaps the world's most famous bachelor, to the project. "There are these interesting connections between him and the character in this film," Reitman said.

"I wanted to make a movie where a guy recognizes the importance of connection. That's what this movie is truly about -- connecting to other human beings," Reitman said after the screening. "This is the most personal movie I've made," said Reitman, whose debut feature was 2005's "Thank You for Smoking." "And it could very well be the most personal movie I'll ever make."

"Up in the Air" now travels to next week's Toronto International Film Festival. After that, we'll see how high the movie can fly.

--John Horn

Photo: George Clooney in a scene from "Up in the Air." Credit: Paramount Pictures

Telluride: Plenty for sale, but few shoppers

Farewell There's no shortage of new films at the 36th annual Telluride Film Festival looking for a theatrical distributor. Problem is, there aren't that many buyers -- in this Colorado mountain resort, or anywhere else for that matter.

Two concurrent -- but not necessarily complementary -- business cycles have led to the imbalance. First, a rush of money (from high net-worth individuals, hedge funds and other outside-of-Hollywood sources) helped create a deluge of new movies, often the kind of modestly budgeted, high-minded dramas the studios tend to avoid. But just as those films were coming to market and looking for a theatrical home, the very distributors of those movies vanished from the scene -- the latest victims including Senator Entertainment. And even the handful of specialty films that are still around (Focus Features, Lionsgate, Miramax, The Weinstein Co.) aren't buying nearly as many festival films as they once did.

The same dilemma facing Telluride filmmakers was encountered by their brethren earlier in the year at Sundance and in Cannes, where dozens of films left without striking a distribution deal. Nearly half of Telluride's features do not yet have a theatrical home, and there aren't a crush of buyers in attendance: Miramax, IFC Films, Sony Pictures Classics and Bob Berney's new Apparition have senior executives here, but industry leader Fox Searchlight  does not.

Among the higher-profile Telluride titles on the block: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren and James McAvoy in the Leo Tolstoy biography "The Last Station"; writer-director Todd Solondz's tragicomic "Life During Wartime"; filmmaker Werner Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" with Nicolas Cage; and the foreign productions "Room and a Half," "Gigante," "Terra Madre," "L'Affaire Farewell" and "Window."

-- John Horn

Telluride Film Festival Announces 2009 Lineup

Telluride2009Story Works from over 25 countries will be screened as part of the 2009 Telluride Film Festival program, announced today. Twenty-four features will play as part of the Festival's main program, "The Show," while 10 documentaries, 29 short films and 11 revivals, including six programmed by 2009 Guest Director Alexander Payne, will make up the four-day event, which kicks off Friday and concludes Monday.

In addition to the films, actor Viggo Mortensen, director Margarethe Von Trotta and legendary performer Anouk Aimee will each receive the festival's Silver Medallion Awards, given out to recognize contributions to world cinema. Film preservationist Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films will receive this year's Special Medallion award. Read the full schedule after the break.
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AMPAS grants $50,000 to Telluride Film Festival


Mitzvah alert: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has underwritten this year's Telluride Film Festival's Guest Director Program to the tune of $50,000. This is the second year in a row that AMPAS has provided such a grant to the program. This year's program features director and Oscar-winning screenwriter Alexander Payne. Academy President Tom Sherak said of the gesture, "It's very gratifying for the Academy to be able to support this program, especially at a time when arts funding is so critical." Agreed.

For the last 20 years, Telluride has welcomed filmmakers and personalities to help select and present films. Previous guest directors have included Peter Bogdanovich, Salman Rushdie, Errol Morris, Stephen Sondheim and Bertrand Tavernier. The 2009 Telluride Film Festival opens Friday and runs through Monday.

-- Paul Gaita

Photo: Telluride Film Festival


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