Telluride Film Festival: History and Winners

The Surprising Success of a Small Film Festival

The Sheridan Opera House at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival
TELLURIDE, CO - AUGUST 31: A general view outside the Sheridan Opera House at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival - Day 3 on August 31, 2013 in Telluride, Colorado.

Vivien Killilea / Getty Images

The Telluride Film Festival is an annual event held during the U.S. Labor Day holiday weekend in Colorado. The festival was established in 1974 in Telluride, a mining town located roughly halfway between Denver, Colorado, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, with the city’s Sheridan Opera House as its main venue. The Sheridan is a historic theater built in 1913 known for its “SHOW” marquee above the entrance, which has become the festival’s most recognizable icon.

While the Telluride Film Festival remains small in size compared to other major events, it has grown in prestige over the past four decades. In recent years, Telluride has become an important launching point for films to develop Awards Season momentum.

Did You Know?

The 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire was almost released direct-to-DVD, but after it received significant praise in its Telluride Film Festival premiere, it was released theatrically. The film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and grossed $378 million worldwide.

Surprisingly, the program of the Telluride Film Festival is not announced beforehand, so attendees are in the dark on what will be screened until the start of the festival. Nonetheless, because Telluride does not feature an official competition, it has grown into an opportunity for filmmakers, producers, distributors, and studios to premiere and gain exposure for films right before the start of the annual promotional Awards Season, as the Telluride Film Festival typically falls between the much-bigger Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. Telluride is also one of seven events that are qualifying film festivals for entries in the Independent Spirit Awards.

As the Telluride Film Festival has grown in popularity, it has expanded into new venues in the city. In 2013 (the 40th anniversary of the festival), the Werner Herzog Theater, named after the iconic German filmmaker, opened in Telluride. Herzorg was awarded the festival’s Silver Medallion in the Telluride Film Festival’s second year (1975).

Guest directors, which are selected from throughout the arts, are selected every year to choose films for the program, particularly classic films that have been influential on the guest director’s personal work. Additionally, since 2010 the Telluride Film Festival has partnered with the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television’s filmLAB to showcase the work of the program’s graduate students.

Director Danny Boyle received the Silver Medallion at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival
TELLURIDE, CO - SEPTEMBER 05: Director Danny Boyle receives a silver medallion at the Telluride Film Festival on September 5, 2015. Vivien Killilea / Getty Images

The Telluride Film Festival Silver Medallion

Unlike other festivals, the lone official award bestowed by the Telluride Film Festival is not typically awarded to films exhibited during the event. The Silver Medallion, while modest in size and design, is one of the most prestigious awards bestowed by an American film festival.

In its earliest years, the Silver Medallion was sometimes awarded to non-individuals, like the 1976 remake of King Kong, or cinematic concepts like “The Czechoslovak New Wave” in 1978 (awarded to four filmmakers), “The Character Actor” in 1981 (awarded to four actors), “Nature’s Filmmakers” in 1991 (awarded to three documentary filmmakers), and “The Surrealists” in 1995 (awarded to four filmmakers). Since 1996, the Silver Medallion has typically been awarded to two to four individuals per year, though one has occasionally been awarded to a company or organization, such as the BBC series Arena (1999), HBO (2001), Postif magazine (2002), the Criterion Collection (2005), UCLA Film and Television Archive (2010), and Sight + Sound magazine (2011).

Controversially, one of the first recipients of the Silver Medallion in the festival’s inaugural year (1974) was German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. While her documentary films like Triumph des Willens (1935) and Olympia (1938) are incredibly influential and made her one of the most notable female filmmakers of her era, the films were propaganda for the Nazi regime in Germany. For example, a New York Times article that was critical of the decision to honor her declared in its headline, “Hitler's Favorite Filmmaker Honored at Colorado Festival.”

Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in the 2003 film Lost in Translation
Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation (2003).  Focus Features

Notable Premieres

Since 2003, the Telluride Film Festival has become an important launching point for Oscar success. The film Lost in Translation had its world premiere at the 2003 festival and went on to receive major awards, including the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Sofia Coppola), and Best Actor in a Leading Role (Bill Murray).

Though the Telluride Film Festival had premiered Oscar-winning films previously (for example, The Crying Game had its North American premiere at the 1992 festival), the success of Lost in Translation brought new attention to Telluride as a festival that could launch a film for major awards consideration.

This is a partial list of some of the Telluride Film Festival's most notable premieres in recent years:

North American Premiere: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

The romantic drama Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee, won three Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Director. It also won three BAFTA Awards, including Best Film.

World Premiere: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

The drama Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Danny Boyle, went on to win eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. It also won seven BAFTA Awards, including Best Film and Best Director.

World Premiere: The King's Speech (2010)

The historical drama The King's Speech, directed by Tom Hooper, won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It also won seven BAFTA Awards, including Best British Film.

World Premiere: Argo (2012)

The 2012 drama Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, was nominated for seven Academy Awards. It won three Oscars, including Best Picture. It also won three BAFTA Awards (Best Film, Best Director, and Best Editing).

World Premiere: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

The historical drama 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won three (Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay). The film also won two BAFTA Awards (Best Film and Best Actor).

North American Premiere: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

After making its North American premiere at Telluride, the drama Birdman, directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, went on to win four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. It also won the BAFTA Award for Best Cinematography.

World Premiere: The Imitation Game (2014)

The historical drama The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum, was nominated for eight Academy Awards and nine BAFTA Awards. The film won one Oscar (for Best Adapted Screenplay).

North American Premiere: Spotlight (2015)

The investigative crime drama Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy, won two Academy Awards: Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Spotlight also won the BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay.

World Premiere: Moonlight (2016)

The drama Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, went on to win three Academy Awards, including Best Picture (memorably after the wrong film, La La Land, was announced as the winner by mistake).

North American Premiere: The Shape of Water (2017)

The fantasy drama The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro, won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. In addition, The Shape of Water won three BAFTA Awards, including Best Director.

World Premiere:Lady Bird (2017)

The 2017 drama Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig, was nominated for five Academy Awards and three BAFTA Awards. Notably, Gerwig became just the fifth woman to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Director.