The first time I encountered Bill Pence, who died on Dec. 6 at age 82, he was on stage in Telluride’s Sheridan Opera House opening the Fourth Telluride Film Festival, over Labor Day weekend in 1977.
The festival was small then — only three theaters — but Bill said plainly that no one could see everything in the festival.
“You have to make choices,” he said.
That’s when I knew Telluride was a festival for people grown up enough to understand they couldn’t have it all. Since the beginning, Telluride has drawn people who love film and know something about film — but are not necessarily experts, specialists or in the film business.
Bill, with his wife, Stella, along with James Card, who created the great film archive at Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., and Tom Luddy, then-director of the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, founded the Telluride Film Festival. It had its first incarnation in 1974.
It was something of an outgrowth of Denver’s first movie arthouse, The Flick in Larimer Square. Bill and Stella also ran theaters in several Colorado mountain towns.
As Bill once told me, James Card saw the Sheridan and said: “You have to put a film festival here.”
Since Card knew just about everyone still alive from the period of silent film, he arranged for the great star Gloria Swanson to receive one of the three tributes at that first event. The other tributes went to the notorious Nazi-era filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and to the young star director Francis Ford Coppola. Film festivals were pretty new to America in 1974, and this combination of young and old, famous and infamous, put Telluride on the map.
It was then, and still is, a blend of rustic and sophisticated, but it’s never been celebrity-centered. James Stewart came one year, not to receive a tribute, but to celebrate the work of director Anthony Mann, maker of terrific westerns and film noirs.
Clint Eastwood sat in movies like everyone else. Because of Bill Pence and his fellow-founders, the spirit of Telluride is unique — it celebrates the best of cinema, old and new, foreign and domestic with a focus always on the movies and never on people who are celebrated because they’re celebrities.
Many filmmakers and film-goers consider Telluride to be the best festival in the world because it’s small; the audience is respectful and savvy, and they aren’t hounded by the press.
Telluride is plenty expensive now because it takes tons of money to bring all the films and the filmmakers to Telluride for four days, but for that first incarnation of the festival, $30 got you a ticket to the festival plus a bus ride from Denver to Telluride. And a worried Bill Pence asked a mutual friend if $30 was too much.
What was Bill like? He adored the movies. He was tremendously focused and disciplined. He expected the same from people who worked on the festival. He made sure to get the best film prints possible (years before digital); he expected good projection; he chose to work with people he found capable and interesting, and with Stella and Tom Luddy created a Telluride family of some of the most devoted lovers of cinema in the world — Chuck Jones, Werner Herzog, Bertrand Tavernier, Ken Burns, Louis Malle, the international programmer Pierre Rissient. Bill Pence never made himself a star — the festival and the films were the stars.
I think my favorite moment with Bill came at the Cannes festival in 1992. We’d had dinner and then went to the press screening of Terence Davies’ gorgeous and soulful “The Long Day Closes.” Festival programmers don’t go to movies at Cannes to enjoy entire pictures. They stay only long enough to make a quick yes or no for their festival — they can see the whole film later.
Bill warned me that he would take off after 10 or 15 minutes. But he stayed until the end, and just sat quietly in his seat, taking it all in. Then he said simply, “It was too beautiful to leave.”
Howie Movshovitz has been a teacher in the Telluride Film Festival’s Student Symposium for college students since it began in 1990.