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MERCHANTS IN VENICE

The rain-swollen sirocco that blew in off the Adriatic Sept. 7 and flooded St. Mark’s Square under a foot of water might have been nature’s way of noting the winds of change sweeping across the European festival circuit. Nowhere are those new breezes being felt as strongly as here; while mega-media mergers back home have everyone bracing for the new showbiz order, the success of Venice is also ensuring that the way films are bought, sold and marketed in Europe will never be the same.

The return of high-profile Americans to the Lido has already had an impact on Cannes, bumping it to second place in the glitz contest this year. Veteran Euro festgoers say this year’s Venice – where street crime is non-existent and the tourists can be escaped by speedboat – recalled those glamorous Cannes fests of the ’50s, when stars like Robert Mitchum would wade along the beach carrying bottles of champagne.

Meanwhile, the increasing evidence of genuine business being done here is bound to affect the fall film market at Mifed.

Miramax, which is presenting four world premieres here, is selling Woody Allen’s well-received “Mighty Aphrodite” to major territories. Miramax will likely use Mifed to mop up deals in smaller countries.

And while talk of an official market at Venice remains just that, some companies, including the U.K.’s Film Four and Miramax, are experimenting with private screening facilities for distribs – a new step here heavily endorsed by fest director Gillo Pontecorvo.

Says Film Four manager Heather Playford-Denman: “The private screenings introduced this year are a great idea and the first sign of the establishment of a little market. They’ve given us the opportunity to get all the buyers to see our films.”

Playford-Denman closed deals in Venice on competition entry “Nothing Personal” for Spain, Germany, Brazil, Scandinavia and Benelux.

Besides the presence of dozens of distributors from around the world, Venice is also hosting a gaggle of Euro exhibitors who are thrilled to be getting first looks at upcoming American films like Universal “clockers,” Fox’s “Strange Days” and Paramount’s “Jade.”

Paradoxically, that American support for Venice is thanks to a situation that the Americans are keen to reverse: the lack of a year-round European marketplace. Should the multiplex construction boom eventually make the majors comfortable releasing more product in Europe outside of the fall, Venice could suffer.

Indeed, one of the next challenges facing Venice will be to transcend the Yank influx and increase the participation of A list European auteurs. One American exec notes that, contrary to rumor, Cannes director Gilles Jacob is unfazed by the American embrace of Venice. But he adds: “What would really piss off Jacob is if Pontecorvo started getting the Kusturicas of the world.” Jacob, who was in Venice, could not be reached.

Pontecorvo, however, prefers to stay out of the competitive fray. “I want to stop this rivalry between festivals,” he told Variety. “If one festival has a more prestigious lineup than another one year, and another one the next, who cares? It’s the films that count.”

At the end of his fourth term as festival director, Pontecorvo claims to be seriously considering bowing out before the final year of his contract is up after the 1996 go-round. His decision will be announced by the end of the fall.

Should he choose to leave, the director has a quintet of replacement candidates in mind, one of whom he hopes the Biennale will appoint. These include Giorgio Gosetti, currently vice-director and co-programmer of the Venetian Nights section with Irene Bignardi, who is also in line for the job.

Also on Pontecorvo’s suggestion list are critic Lino Micciche, actor-director Nanni Moretti and producer Felice Laudadio.

Star power stronger

The American star power at Venice this year is primarily thanks to UIP and Miramax. Both companies are launching several films here, throwing lavish parties and generally commanding the attention of the 2,700 journalists on hand.

The second week of the fest brought Mel Gibson for Fox’s “Braveheart” – here with his ICM agent Jim Wiatt, a firstime Venice festgoer – Sean Penn and Jack Nicholson, here to promote the Miramax premiere of Penn’s “The Crossing Guard,” and Spike Lee, who brought his new Universal film “Clockers.” Also hopping off boats were David Caruso and Chazz Palminteri of Paramount’s “Jade.”

Execs docking on the Lido include Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein, Universal’s Tom Pollock, Paramount’s Sherry Lansing and her husband, “Jade” director William Friedkin.

Ebert energetic

One measure of Venice’s coming out is the omnipresence of celebrity film critic Roger Ebert, who has not been seen at Venice since 1972 but was enticed by the glamor to camp on the Lido this year.

Ebert is toting around a Hi-8 video camera and self-documenting the fest for his Disney-owned TV show – a bit of cinema verite that would probably not be possible back home under union rules.

“It’s Cannes without the hassle,” said Ebert enthusiastically about Venice. “You can actually get into the 8:30 a.m. screening.”

Ebert’s comment notwithstanding, hassles aplenty greet festgoers in Venice. Although a threatened Italian air traffic controllers’ strike this weekend was cancelled on Friday, its prospect drove home for many the bureaucratic snafus that plague the festival.

Complaints range from inoperative telephones to a byzantine ticketing system that does not allow even studio execs to get ducats for their own films until three hours before showtime.

“I ran into Spike Lee today and he asked for a ticket to ‘The Crossing Guard’ tonight,” said that film’s exec producer, Richard Gladstein. “But I didn’t have any. What am I supposed to do? Tell Spike to check with the publicist at 5:00?”

Last week’s world premiere of “Clockers” went over well with Euro critics, some of whom regarded it as his best film ever. UIP’s Nadia Bronson said that “five years ago, we would never have brought a film like that to Venice; the festival was ‘haute’ then. But you have to keep up with the changes.”

Echoing Bronson’s comments were those made by MPAA chief Jack Valenti, who was in Venice late last week preaching the importance of flexibility for American companies in Europe.

“There’s always going to be change in the marketplace,” said Valenti from his traditional perch, attired in bathing suit, on the Lido beach. “Our companies are all very smart, and they will continue to respond to those changes.”

Volpi blasts Biennale

On the local front, unofficial Venice host Count Giovanni Volpi stepped up his attack on the Biennale officials who administer the fest. “They should all be out on their ears tomorrow,” he said at a press conference where he accepted an award from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Volpi wants the festival to be privatized – sold to a non- Italian company that would pay Venice one dollar a year to rent the facilities. The company would conceivably make money by running an official film market.

Asked how such a market would impact the politically well-connected Mifed mart in Milan, Volpi responded: “Let us set up a market, and let’s see who goes where.”

“I would love to create a market here,” said Gianni Nunnari, the L.A.-based president of Cecchi Gori Pictures. The Italo distrib is itself conducting much business on the Lido. Bickering between Pontecorvo’s festival staff and the Biennale reached an all-time high this year. “Their rules and structures are ridiculous,” said the fest topper. “The Biennale’s antiquated bureaucracy ultimately penalizes the festival.”

Pontecorvo views the prospect of possible privatization with an open mind. “Combining private investors with state interests would be the ideal solution, but the Biennale cannot become a purely commercial concern,” he said.

Commercial concerns, though, are becoming increasingly prominent at what was once considered the almost exclusive domain of high-minded cinephiles.

Sources say Miramax is close to a deal in France for “Aphrodite” with either Bac Films – which bought Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” last year for $2.8 million – or Buena Vista Intl. Miramax is said to be asking $4 million-$5 million for the new film in France, although company execs refused to confirm that.

Ideal launchpad

“Venice is where we launch our films,” says Miramax International’s David Linde, who counts himself a big fan of the fest. “You can really identify films here, partly because there’s so much dialog between critics and filmmakers” – most of whom stay in the same hotels.

Another recent strategy at Venice is to create a buzz for a film and then sell it at Toronto. That worked last year for “II Postino” (bought by Miramax) and “Before the Rain” (Gramercy).

Carole Myer of the Sales Company is here similarly positioning “Go Now,” the second feature from Michael Winterbottom (“The Butterfly Kiss”). Myer also is successfully selling Nigel Finch’s “Stonewall,” appearing in the fest’s Window on Images. The sidebar has grown considerably this year, presenting several of the fest’s critical hits such as Gregg Araki’s “Doom Generation,” Gerard Stembridge’s “Guiltrip” and Vinicius Mainardi’s “Sixteen Oh Sixty.” Many of the pics have closed distribution deals here.

Says Myer: “I wasn’t sure if it would be worth my while presenting films in the side sections, but these screenings are really working well with buyers.”

Meanwhile, U.S. shoppers seeking films in Toronto are advised to bring big checks; sellers of foreign-lingo films here are said to be asking as much as $1 million for North America. “They are vastly misjudging the American market,” says one buyer.

The reception for Miramax’s “The Crossing Guard” was mixed. Some critics found the tearjerker a sincerely moving experience, while others dismissed it as pretentious.

Nicholson drew raves from press and execs alike for his deft handling of the media frenzy here. “Jack has been a real example to the younger stars and filmmakers here,” said one exec.

Jury prizes are scheduled to be announced Sept. 9. Golden Lion career achievement awards being handed out on closing night are going to Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Alain Resnais, with Italo honors tagged for director Giuseppe De Santis, producer Goffredo Lombardo, film score composer Ennio Morricone and thesps Alberto Sordi and Monica Vitti.

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