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Championing Unknown Gems

The Telluride fest has launched many of the small-picture hits in the US over the past 17 years. FILM: INTERVIEW

By M. S. MasonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 21, 1990


AS the 17th Telluride Film Festival ground to a halt and the crowd returned to civilization, festival general manager Stella Pence dashed off the last round of checks. Though she worked quickly and intently, writing even as the interview began, she looked serene. The whole festival, as intense as it sometimes is, reflects Ms. Pence's ardent calm, moving along smoothly, deliberately. Moments of unpleasant tension are few. The staff is invariably polite, friendly, and helpful - as if each member is part of a happy conspiracy. Charged with discovery, the festival produces an atmosphere that is oddly refreshing. There are many reasons for the unique ambience of the Telluride Film Festival; Stella Pence is one of them.

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Another is her husband, Bill Pence, co-director with Tom Luddy. When the Pences met nearly 20 years ago, Bill owned and directed a classic-film distribution company, Janus Films. Stella was hired as his only assistant. They married a year later and the next year began planning the first Telluride Film Festival.

``Working together is terrific for us because we both love movies,'' Stella says. ``For the main things in life we really are on the same wave length. We're never at a loss for something to talk about. I mean never. We have just as animated conversations now as we did the day we met.''

Telluride growth and evolution have been nurtured by the Pence's marriage, because, as Bill says, ``We each know our own space and respect what the other does well.'' Their love for the movies spawned a festival dedicated to uncovering the unusual, the neglected, and the forgotten masterpieces of the cinema. The festival is marked by a very particular style that has nothing pretentious or self-conscious about it. It involves the selection of films with balance as a priority.

Telluride has always championed the unknown gem, and tends to favor films by women or third-world filmmakers or young new directors over the established directors. The festival has launched in the US many of the small picture hits of the last 17 years - films like ``My Dinner With Andre,'' ``Au Revoir, Les Enfants,'' ``Babette's Feast,'' ``Cinema Paradiso,'' and ``Roger and Me'' among many, many others. The great Russian director Andr'e Tarkovsky debuted two of his greatest masterpieces in Telluride, where he received a tribute in 1983.

In fact, except for the historic films, nearly all of Telluride's offerings are US firsts, and many are world premi`eres. Telluride still champions the avant-garde when most other festivals no longer even acknowledge masters like Stan Brakhage and James Herbert.

Bill had contacts in the film industry, and since he owned and operated a chain of theaters in ski areas, he knew how both distribution and exhibition worked. The Telluride Film Festival sprang up in 1974 with neither of the co-founders expecting it to last more than a year.

But it was a good idea, highly successful with guests, and it did last. It became, as Stella put it, ``part of the cycle of our lives. Spring comes and you plant the film festival seeds, hoe it all summer long, harvest in the fall, and hole up for the winter.''

In the spring, the Pences attend the Cannes Film Festival with co-director Luddy. They split up to see pieces of films all day and report back to each other. Mr. Luddy and Bill then selects the films they will invite to Telluride. Over the summer they solicit films from other sources and are solicited to see films - in various stages of completion. Once Luddy and Pence make their final selections (with input from Stella), Stella takes over inviting the guests, getting them to Telluride, managing staff, and overseeing the festival arrangements. Stella is the festival's only full-time employee. Bill earns his living directing the film program at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College. Luddy is a film producer and director of special projects at Zoetrope Strudios in California.