Yes, today’s announcement of films playing the Telluride Film Festival, which starts Thursday and runs through Labor Day, features many of the usual suspects spotted on the fall fest circuit and eyeing awards attention for their hot Oscar prospects. Netflix has multiple movies, so does Amazon. Focus, Warner Bros, Searchlight, Neon, A24, Sony Classics and more will also be there with some prime prospects.
But perhaps most surprisingly, National Geographic is leading the pack and taking four, count ’em four 2021 documentaries to world premiere at Telluride. And actually it would have been five but the festival passed on another (great) one, but more on that momentarily.
When I sat down recently for lunch and a preview of all five movies on Nat Geo’s impressive slate this year with Carolyn Bernstein, EVP Global Scripted Content and Documentary Films for National Geographic, among the first things she pointed out before extolling the virtues of the slate was how excited they were to be going to Telluride with this group of films, also revealing a specific strategy involved in employing the Telluride audience of cinephiles and movie lovers as sort of a test lab in order to help determine how the movies will be distributed. This is the first year filmmakers and studios must decide if they specifically are theatrical or for television debuts. Pick one: Oscars or Emmys.
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“Here’s what we’re doing. We have ideas, right now, about what we think makes sense. We have ideas about which ones are probably an Emmy pivot versus Oscars,” Bernstein told me when I asked what the plan was. “But we’re really waiting to see what happens in front of an audience for the first time at Telluride. I mean it’s so exciting to even contemplate. I’ve seen these movies five thousand times. They still move me. They make me cry. But so, I know what moves me. I know, and I’m kind of in love with all of these movies, but we’ll put them in front of an audience, and we’ll see what happens. We have ideas. They may change. They may change depending on what kind of reaction, reception we get, but (eventually) they’re all going to have a big global audience on Disney+.”
Like Bernstein, Courteney Monroe, who oversees content as president and CEO of National Geographic Global Networks, is proud of all their output this season, and happy to be debuting it at Telluride. “In many respects, our National Geographic Documentary Films banner is still in its infancy, with this only our fifth awards cycle. So it is particularly humbling and exciting for us to have four films invited to the prestigious Telluride Film Festival [along with Toronto, London and many others]. Our slate of films this year, beyond Telluride, hails from a group of powerhouse filmmakers with whom we are so honored to be partnering including Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, Liz Garbus and Dan Cogan, Matt Heineman, and Jonathan Chinn and Simon Chinn. We are also proud to be working with first-time director Max Lowe on our film Torn. Overall, our slate perfectly embodies what we are striving for: to work with the very best creative talent, to empower new voices, and to use the power of storytelling to deepen people’s understanding of the world,” she tells Deadline.
The films (all of which I have now seen in their entirety even as some were rushing to finish by the premiere deadline) to which she is referring that will be hitting Telluride all this weekend include the extraordinary Becoming Cousteau from veteran docu director Liz Garbus and her husband and producing partner Dan Cogan, chronicling the legendary ocean explorer and filmmaker who never referred to his own films as documentaries but rather adventures. Bernstein calls this “a four-quadrant movie” and Nat Geo is working with distribution veterans Bob Berney and Jeanne Berney and their Picturehouse shingle to bring it to theatres. Garbus and Cogan are also executive producers on Fauci, the biodoc, which debuted its trailer on Deadline yesterday, focusing on Dr. Anthony Fauci and covering his life in medicine including the AIDS crisis all the way up to his key role during the current Covid-19 pandemic. John Hoffman and Janet Tobias are the directors. It will actually hit select cities and theatres with vaccine requirements on September 10 (through Magnolia).
Perhaps most remarkable in many ways, particularly in terms of previously never-before-seen footage, is The Rescue, the latest from Free Solo Oscar winners Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasrhelyi. It includes fascinating interviews with the key players and has incredible jaw-dropping access to every step of the rescue operation of the 2018 Thai soccer team trapped in an impenetrable cave for two weeks. Finally there is the gut-wrenching family saga, the aforementioned Torn, from first-time filmmaker Max Lowe, who uses the medium to explore the tragic death of his mountain climbing father buried in an avalanche in the Himilayas 17 years earlier. It is much, much more than another mountain climbing saga, but a complicated family story with surprising twists along the way. It comes from Lightbox and the Chinn brothers in association with Nat Geo.
You might say this output is the result of a careful and deliberate building process at Nat Geo in expanding its feature documentary ambitions following the success of their Oscar-winning Free Solo (which also picked up seven Emmys when that kind of double play was possible, before the Television Academy changed its eligibility rules to block films that also competed for Academy Awards), as well as nominees like the acclaimed The Cave. And Telluride, Nat Geo execs feel, gives them an entry point, but actually the ticking clock also has a direct impact on the decision to go there with such force this year.
“A lot of it had to do with Covid-related timing, to be honest. A few of these are still in post, and we will just make it. You know it would’ve been nice if Becoming Cousteau had a Cannes premiere, but it wasn’t done, right? I mean it would’ve been lovely, but it just wasn’t finished,” lamented Bernstein. “So, you know, it gives us a shorter runway from an awards perspective, but I can’t tell you how thrilled everyone at Nat Geo and all of our filmmakers are to be at Telluride. It feels really special, and they’re going to be in such good company, and it wasn’t really completely by design. Part of it was by design. Part of it was Covid timing, delays, you know, whatever, but here we are with four films. So, it’s just so exciting, and I’ve never been to Telluride.”
To give an example of just how they are narrowly beating the clock, Bernstein points to the making of The Rescue. “It was very difficult for us to go to Thailand during Covid with quarantines and borders closed and whatever. Chai managed to do it. She had to do a two-week quarantine, but she got into Thailand, and that’s why the movie’s a little delayed, we’re racing to get it done. Probably two months ago they found a treasure trove of footage that just Thai nationals had, a colonel in the Thai military, someone who worked for Thai PBS, the wife of a Navy SEAL had taken all of this footage right at the rescue site, and there was additional footage of the boys that just hasn’t been widely released. There’s a famous still photograph of the boys when our divers come upon them, but no one’s seen that video. That is not out in the public,” she explained in terms of getting this all into the finished film as it was being discovered.
Free Solo actually premiered in Telluride in 2018, but that was one month before Bernstein took over docs in October of that year, a job she says definitely has its advantages. “It’s very fun to run a business where you’re in the incoming call business, you know? I’ve worked at many jobs where I’m in the outgoing call business. It’s a whole other ballgame. I just met (Telluride co-head) Julie Huntsinger for the first time. I think she’s so terrific, but she said to me, when I met her, she said this year we might as well rename the Telluride Film Festival the Nat Geo Telluride Film Festival. I think that’s a great idea,” Bernstein laughed. “You know I think she really appreciates the humanistic values of all of these films.”
The one other film that Nat Geo also was hoping to take to Telluride was director Matthew Heineman’s (City of Ghosts, Cartel Land, A Private War) harrowing, devastating and emotionally powerful The First Wave, which takes viewers inside a New York City hospital overwhelmed in the early months of the Covid pandemic between March and June 2020, also incorporating the parallel tragedy and protests around the death of George Floyd. Although it focuses on the severe fight to survive of some patients, it also doesn’t flinch at showing those who die while struggling to fight the deadly disease, as well as the human toll on the brave doctors, nurses and staff who fight at all personal costs to save lives. But Telluride, like many other entities, was canceled last year due to the pandemic and this year is operating with great caution and safety measures in order to take place this week. And although the pandemic is evident in some other films appearing there (Fauci, Peter Hedges’ The Same Storm), this film might have been too harrowing, with Bernstein surmising she felt it might have been in this circumstance just “too upsetting, I think too disturbing.” Instead it will serve as the opening-night world premiere October 7 at the Hamptons Film Festival, appropriately in New York where this stunning documentary is set.
As for their films that will be at Telluride, Bernstein really appreciates that Huntsinger is giving such a prestigious showcase to Nat Geo.
“The other ones, I mean, she just had exactly the reaction we would dream of in terms of really understanding and appreciating the values of the movie and the themes of the movies, which, you know, share a lot of stuff in common. We talk at Nat Geo about our content needs to, among other things, deepen people’s understanding of the world and their role in it. It’s kind of a lofty goal.” she said. “I also want to make movies that are commercial. I want to make movies that have fantastic characters, big, complicated, outsized characters. Telluride is kind of dreamy and I can’t wait to put these movies in front of a real audience because I think there’s just so much to get from them. People will be moved. We definitely don’t shy away from stories with a lot of emotional content.”