Breaking Baz At Telluride: Following In Barry Jenkins’ Footsteps, Life-Changing Opportunities For 50 Students In Annual Symposium

Austin Sipes, student symposium coordinator for the Telluride Film Festival, checked in this year’s class that had traveled far and wide to participate in what he termed as a “life-changing” immersion into the intricacies of filmmaking.

In 2000, as an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, Sipes hitched up in Telluride as one of the few chosen to engage in the student symposium, now in its 33rd year.

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Okay, how life-changing was it? “A thousand million percent life-changing,” came the sparky response.

“I tell the students every year that it’s a life-changing experience,” Sipes told me.

(L-R) Austin Sipes, Graydon Hanson and Jacob Stefiuk
(L-R) Austin Sipes, Graydon Hanson and Jacob Stefiuk

“And invariably they come to me afterwards with cries of, ‘You are not kidding!’”

Sipes now works in reality television. He’s currently associate director of Top Chef, and left the shoot for a few days to run the Telluride symposium.

Over the years, I’ve observed scores of students, sporting their distinctive orange lanyards, trooping into screenings at the town’s Werner Herzog Theatre, or the Palm, or the Galaxy in the opposite direction.

One year I was beyond desperate to get into a screening at the tiny Nugget Theatre on Colorado Avenue. The small group of students ahead of me in the queue vowed to save me a seat inside.

Telluride’s Nugget Theatre
Telluride’s Nugget Theatre

They kept their word.

Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk), as this column mentioned recently, was in the Telluride class of 2002. Apart from the culture shock of seeing snow for the first time and “being in a town as white as Telluride,” his experience here was also “life-changing.”

The filmmaker told me how he went from “being someone who was an apprentice at the festival to being someone who was being brought into the interior of the festival,” and he remembered selling T-shirts in town to help fund the making of his first movie Medicine for Melancholy. He recalled that most of the shirts were purchased by Telluride staff.

“He’s our best,” Sipes acknowledged. ”And he promotes the program so well because, obviously, he’s our first Oscar winner, that I know of.”

Sipes explained that the system was the same for Jenkins two decades ago as it was for the 2023 intake.

It’s an application-based program for 50 college or university students, U.S. and international.

This year, 200 students applied from the U.S., Canada and overseas.

They were tasked with writing a short essay, and their submissions had to include a letter of recommendation from a professor or an advisor, “and from there it’s based on how well-written their essay is and what their professor says about them, essentially,” Sipes explained.

Applicants were charged with writing about a film that they felt passionately about, said Sipes, who recalled that when he took part he wrote about the revisionist Western masculinity of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

Sipes was accepted and, along with Jenkins, has been part of the Telluride Film Festival family ever since.

A council of four, including Sipes, sifts through the applicants’ submissions to pick their 50.

“They have a fairly rigorous schedule of symposia with filmmakers — like Barry or Francis Ford Coppola or whoever it is –[who] will come and sit down and talk to the students for 45 minutes, and it’s just them,” Sipes disclosed.

Watching Sipes interact with a group of male students made me think of the classic movie Goodbye, Mr. Chips [the 1939 Robert Donat one, not the 1969 version starring Peter O’Toole] — women do participate in the scheme, but none were on hand when I visited the symposium desk inside the Brigadoon pavilion.

Justin Colebrooke from Georgia State University was thrilled to be included because he had believed that attending Telluride had been an “inaccessible” dream.

Jacob Stefiuk, studying film production at Concordia University in Montreal, nodded in agreement.

Grant Conversano, a graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, started out at Telluride in 2017 and has returned every year since, working in the education services department.

Grant Conversano, a graduate of the student symposium scheme
Grant Conversano, a graduate of the student symposium scheme

He was feeling pretty chuffed because NCSA, he told me, is where Jeff Nichols (Loving, Mud) studied “and he’s here with a film!” (That film, The Bikeriders starring Austin Butler, Jodie Comer and Tom Hardy, has its world premiere screening at Telluride today.)

The students are handed an envelope by Sipes that contains credentials plus $200 to help them through the long weekend.

The insight, the knowledge, the accessibility to world-class filmmakers is priceless.

Jenkins said something about how Telluride wraps its arms around you — for life.

Start writing those essays!

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