Bill Pence, Original Telluride Co-Founder, Has Died at 82

Bill Pence, the film curator and theater operator best known as one of the founders of Telluride Film Festival, died December 6 after a long illness, IndieWire has confirmed. He was 82.

Pence co-founded Telluride, held annually in the Colorado town during Labor Day weekend, in 1974, along with his wife Stella Pence, James Card, and Tom Luddy. He served as the co-director and president of the National Film Preserve, which runs the annual festival, in 1974. Pence additionally created the Santa Fe Film Festival with his wife Stella in 1980, and the two ran it for three years.

“Bill Pence is an almost mythical figure in the landscape of the Telluride Film Festival,” said Julie Huntsinger, executive director of the Telluride Film Festival, in a statement shared with IndieWire. “An incredibly generous founder but any single description isn’t enough. A showman, a visionary, a great leader, a film buff — all of these things and more. But most importantly of all, Bill was a great person. Kind and smart and a wonderful father and husband. We continue to be inspired by his example and vow to continue the important work of film appreciation.”

Born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Pence’s first jobs were as an usher at movie theaters around the city. In the ’50s, he attended Carnegie Mellon University (then known as Carnegie Tech), where he ran the student film society. After several years in the U.S. Air Force after graduation, he began his career in film preservation, restoration, and distribution by establishing Film Arts Enterprises in 1961.

Pence opened his first theater in 1965 and quickly acquired over a dozen art and commercial movie theaters through the companies The Flick, Rocky Mountain Cinemas, and The Picture Show Corporation, owning them through the ’80s. Pence focused on the distribution of specialized, independent, and foreign films in non-metropolitan college towns. Notable theaters he operated included the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, the Egyptian in Park City, the Princess in Crested Butte, the Chief in Steamboat Springs, and the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride.

From 1965 to 1978, Pence worked as the vice president of film distribution company Janus Films. While at the distributor, he focused on building the company’s library of classic films, which eventually served as the initial foundation for home video curator the Criterion Collection. He also helped to establish “Janus Film Festivals,” showings of the companies’ library of titles that became popular on college campuses.

In 1983, Pence joined Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center of the Arts as the director of the film program. While there, he led the Dartmouth Film Society and developed a program where Dartmouth students assisted in curating Telluride’s short film program and participated in the festival’s student symposium.

Pence is survived by his wife Stella, daughters Zazie and Lara, and his four grandchildren. Pence was included in Turner Classic Movies’ year-end In Memoriam tribute. You can watch that below.

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