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If they screen them, will you come?

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- There is a scene in Francois Truffaut's "Fahrenheit 451" where a colony of book lovers pace slowly through the snow around a pond, reciting the books they have committed to memory. This is in a future where the printed word has been banned. At Telluride sometimes I feel that movie lovers are in the same position, now that the pressures of the marketplace have marginalized all but the most palatable of films.

We remember films that no longer exist, or that exist but are not seen. Though DVDs and tapes allow movies to have a long half-life in the home, they are not a preservation medium--and no one wants to pay for the storage of original 35mm prints. We are not talking only about old films. One morning, drinking coffee in line before a movie, I heard horror stories from Jeff Joseph, a Los Angeles collector of trailers and prints. "Croupier" (2000) was one of the biggest hits of the late, lamented Shooting Gallery series, but when Shooting Gallery went under, what happened to the prints? Joseph thinks only one print of "Croupier" may still exist.

At festivals we attend state-of-the-art screenings of wonderful new films, and then those films enter an impatient marketplace where they must perform well immediately, or die. There is no longer the time for a film to find its audience.

At a screening I sat next to Bingham Ray, an indie film pioneer who co-founded October Films and now heads United Artists, positioned as the specialty arm of MGM. He was mourning the brief windows of opportunity for unusual films.

"A movie like 'My Dinner with Andre' eventually found an enormous audience," he said, "but at first it was just ignored. Today the art houses are as impatient as the big multiplexes."

How does that impact on some of the best films I've seen at Telluride this year? Consider "Revolution #9," Tim McCann's heartfelt film about a woman who gradually realizes her fiance is schizophrenic. The movie doesn't have sensational or exploitative scenes; it's a closely observed character drama, starring Michael Risely and Adrienne Shelley in the leads. It is utterly absorbing, but will it have time to find its audience?

"Italian For Beginners" is another popular film at the festival, the first Dogma 95 film directed by a woman--Lone Scherfig, who in her remarks poked gentle fun at the Dogma movement. Her film is all gentle fun, about a group of lonely people whose lives intersect in a hotel-sports-restaurant complex. Warm humor comes out of their peculiarities, and people here love it--but will people elsewhere have a chance to see it?

And what about "No Man's Land" (2001), by Danis Tanovic, who finds Kafkaesque dark comedy in the war in Bosnia. The film was a hit at Cannes and again here, with its story of soldiers from both sides trapped between lines and discovering a big plot surprise. Will the word "Bosnia" turn off the short attention spans of moviegoers before they get to the news that the film is original and entertaining?

I've seen some other good films here that may have hooks to grab large audiences. One is Ray Lawrence's "Lantana," from Australia, about unhappy marriages, scarcely happier adulteries and a missing person. Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey star in a film whose intersection of characters reminded me of "Magnolia."

And audiences here love "Amelie," which I wrote about from Cannes, where it was denied a berth in the official selection because it was "not serious," and then went on to become the most popular French film of the year. The most accessible film by the visual virtuoso Jean-Pierre Jeunet ("City Of Lost Children"), it has a luminous performance by Audrey Tautou as a romantic innocent.

The festival has one more day to go, and I will be there for the 8:30 a.m. screening of "The Fast Runner," a three-hour film about Eskimos that won prizes at Cannes and has been generating amazed word-of-mouth ever since. Can American moviegoers envision themselves attending a three-hour film about Eskimos, however good, when brainless fodder is available in every multiplex? I am not holding my breath for the answer.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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