Pete Hammond

With 5 new movies screening just on Saturday alone with many of their stars and filmmakers in tow, co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics are dominating much of the conversation and eyeballs at the 39th Telluride Film Festival. Playing today were SPC’s Cannes sensations Rust & Bone accompanied by star Marion Cotillard, and Palme d’Or winner Amour, whose filmmakers aren’t here. Plus 2013 planned releases No (winner of the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes) and its star Gael Garcia Bernal, and the father/son drama At Any Price whose Dennis Quaid and writer/director Ramin Bahrani are here without Zac Efron. Plus, the remarkable Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers. Barker and Bernard have been coming to Telluride for decades and strongly believe in the value of the festival. “I think anywhere from three to five movies is a good number” to bring here, he told me. And when they aren’t showing their own product, they have been seen at screenings checking out acquisition titles. They also held SPC’s annual filmmakers dinner Saturday night at La Marmotte restaurant.

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But other top indie divisions of the majors are virtually sitting out this year’s fest. Telluride regular Fox Searchlight doesn’t have a single film on display here this year, though not for lack of trying. Searchlight has launched movies like Slumdog Millionaire, Juno and last year’s The Descendants among many others at Telluride – and this time wanted to bring their big awards hopeful, The Sessions starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. But Telluride generally frowns on movies that first debuted at Sundance. So the only Searchlight presence are reps checking out films for sale.

The Weinstein Company normally shows off their top titles, but only brought the undated musical The Sapphires (first seen at Cannes in May). It’s playing well at screenings here. No The Master. No Silver Linings Playbook. Both those movies will be in Toronto. However Weinstein in years past launched Best Picture winners The King’s Speech and The Artist at Telluride.

True, Universal’s arthouse division Focus Features this year is front and center with Hyde Park On Hudson. Its star Bill Murray hit town today and co-star Laura Linney lives here and is attending the fest. But Focus is saving another awards title, Anna Karenina, for a Toronto debut. Paramount, which has been here in the past, skipped Telluride and will miss Toronto in favor of debuting their awards players Flight and Not Fade Away at the New York Film Festival.

Oddly, Warner Bros rarely has brought movies to Telluride. But it’s created big buzz and attracted turnaway crowds to every showing of Ben Affleck’s Argo (October 12th release). It’s Affleck’s first time here, and he told me today he’s really having a great time seeing the Telluride audiences’ reactions. Wife Jennifer Garner is with him: she was here last year with Weinstein’s political satire Butter, which is finally getting released on VOD and in theatres in the next month.

But in terms of sheer volume and loyalty, the Sony Pictures Classics label has picked up the slack. And its 5 films will continue to fill the Telluride venues through Monday. Even so, SPC’s Venice and Toronto entry, The Company You Keep, directed by and starring Robert Redford, isn’t in Telluride. Barker told me the undated film won’t be rushed out for an awards play and is meant for 2013 despite its strong presence in Venice and Toronto. “I think it is a perfect spring film,” he told me. “It’s great to see Redford doing this kind of role again.”

At SPC’s annual filmmakers dinner Saturday night, Rust & Bone star Marion Cotillard attended. Besides Best Actress Oscar talk, she received a special festival tribute today, which she told me was quite an honor. Dennis Quaid and writer-director Ramin Bahrani represented At Any Price, which followed up its Venice Film Festival debut a few days earlier with its North American debut at Telluride right after the SPC dinner. Bahrani had just  arrived in the Colorado ski town from Italy and quipped during his intro to the film, “We just got in from Venice, and they said there was a gondola outside for us, which was really confusing!”

No star Gael Garcia Bernal also was at the dinner. I engaged him in a spirited conversation about the complex rules of entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. He’s hoping No will get a yes from Chile as its official entry. But he realizes sometimes other factors come into play, often political ones, and he talked about creating a new uber-awards show for Latin American films to be held right before the Oscars each year. No was getting lots of buzz here after wowing at Cannes.

The fest may seem to have fewer than usual high-profile Best Picture contenders, but thanks to SPC and others it’s still hopping. Among those here seeing movies is producer Rox Yerxa (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks), who’s also the new co-head (with Bruce Davis) of the Academy’s foreign language committee. Among the many other foreign language titles making their North American debuts in Telluride are the recently announced official German entry Barbara, as well as two Mads Mikkelsen movies from Denmark – A Royal Affair and The Hunt (Cannes winner for Best Actor). Mikkelsen also receives a fest tribute on Sunday.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.