This Labor Day weekend, dozens will journey to an elite, isolated Colorado resort town, having spent hundreds of dollars months ago for passes to a film festival that doesn't announce its program until the first day. The lure for this costly leap of faith is the Telluride Film Festival, and it began as a haven for cinephiles in 1974. The biggest draws that first year were art-house gods Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky, and a controversial retrospective of Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and the cinephiles have company: Today, the specialty arms of all the major Hollywood studios have unveiled their Oscar hopefuls at the festival, setting the stage for the long awards season. Every year since 2005, at least one movie showcased at Telluride has landed a Best Picture nomination. That includes Brokeback Mountain, Juno and Up in the Air — films with stars and multimillion-dollar budgets, premiering at high altitude alongside scholarly retrospectives and appearances by highbrow guest directors (Michael Ondaatje, Slavoj Zizek), in an environment that doesn't exactly scream commercial appeal.

Which is sort of the point. Studios piggyback on the festival's arty brand to infuse their products with an aura of quality. The strategy leaves Telluride's core planners unruffled. “We can't control what they do,” says Gary Meyer, the festival's co-director (with co-founder Tom Luddy) since 2006. Despite the increased Hollywood presence, Meyer insists Telluride won't show anything unless they actually like it. “We do get a call once in a while about a commercial film that has serious aspirations,” he adds. “We'll watch it, but we'll explain to the distributor why it's not right for us.”

Nevertheless, a recent story in The Hollywood Reporter predicted several studios would bring their fall movies to the festival for “the ol' Telluride boost.” But that boost is never a sure thing. In 2007, the Sean Penn–directed Into the Wild and the Laura Linney–starring The Savages both received palpable buzz at the festival before floundering in theaters. Mark Urman, of Paladin Films, calls the serene environment “clean, almost holy. For that reason, taking a film there is going to have a limited impact. If a movie is going to begin and end in obscurity, then Telluride may be the apogee of its existence.”

It's a gamble that Fox Searchlight knows well, having famously debuted ostensibly unlikely Oscar winners Slumdog Millionaire and Juno at the festival. This year, rumors suggest it will unveil the prestigious triple threat of Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go and Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan.

Searchlight president Steve Gilula says the boost has more to do with shifting marketing strategies than with the “holiness” of the festival itself. “Telluride exists as it has always existed,” he says. “As the awards season evolved, particularly during the glory days of Miramax and Harvey Weinstein, the fall campaigns became more significant.” In other words, Telluride's timing makes it especially attractive, since awards promotion hits its peak in subsequent weeks. “It's a good place to dip your toe in the water,” Gilula says. “It gives you a litmus test. If the reaction is totally cold, we have reason to be concerned.”

As a kind of trial run for future releases, consider Telluride a highbrow cousin to San Diego Comic-Con, still viewed as a hot spot for launching fanboy-oriented Hollywood tentpole movies despite the fact that many of them (Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) fizzle upon release.

Comic-Con has been accused of preaching to the choir; at Telluride, the choir's voice reverberates down the mountain. Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, attending his 30th Telluride this year, says he had seen eventual multiple Oscar nominee The Last Station prior to the 2009 festival, but only acquired the film after its ecstatic Telluride premiere. “We pursued it aggressively from that moment,” he says. “To say that there's not an appreciative audience that's a bellwether for how the film will perform outside is not entirely accurate.”

Sony's potential 2010 Telluride offerings include the recession documentary Inside Job and Mike Leigh's Another Year.

Art-house distribution veteran Donald Krim of Kino International emphasizes the specificity of the Telluride audience. “It doesn't guarantee a million dollars at the box office,” he says, “but it does guarantee that people in the vanguard of the art-film world will take note.”

And sometimes, that organic art-film-world buzz serves as the secret weapon that sets the season's agenda.

LA Weekly