After 55 years, fest tests market waters

Confab hits streets with attitude

ROME — After 55 years of turning up its nose at commercial concerns and presenting itself as the sacred temple of the liveliest art, the Venice Intl. Film Festival finally goes to market this year. But don’t expect Troma Team babes, Zalman King flicks and Z-grade actioners, because this is a market with attitude.

Talked about for years by former fest topper Gillo Pontecorvo, then announced in 1997 by his successor Felice Laudadio and subsequently dropped when time and organizational factors conspired against him, the invitation-only Venice Script & Film Market finally makes its debut Sept. 5-10.

“This year clearly will be a test run to see if the conditions are right to reinforce Venice with a real market structure,” Laudadio says. “Every market started small, Cannes included, and this one is no exception. But the Cannes market now is almost more important than the festival for many business operators, so there’s no reason to think the same won’t happen in Venice within three to four years.”

While final registration deadlines were still days away at press time, buyers from 65 international companies plus some 35 sellers had signed up for the fledgling boutique mart, with a final turnout of about 150 companies expected.

“For our first year, and considering the limited amount of time we’ve had to organize, I’m very happy with the way things are shaping up,” says Marlene Sternbaum of the Munich Film Festival, who now doubles as director of the autonomously run Venice market. “It’s going to be a very international market, with registrations from buyers all over the world, many of them in Venice for the first time or back here after a very long absence.”

Housed in a specially constructed pavilion near the Palazzo del Cinema, the market is reserved for films screening in official sections in Venice or films Laudadio describes as “veneziabili.” These are quality films chosen by the fest’s programming committee or submitted to and selected by market staff.

Some observers have found it questionable that films are being turned down for official selections but invited to screen in the sales area, hinting that the venture will be stigmatized as a salon des refuses.

“Everyone knows a festival gets 400 to 500 submissions but has only a limited number of spots available,” Sternbaum counters. “Sometimes it’s the films we love best that are turned down, either because they are submitted late or simply because they don’t fit with the style of program. It’s a complex process.”

Sternbaum says the mart’s selective policy was dictated partly by the limited number of screening slots available for the inaugural run. With 12 slots available each day, the market will house about 72 features, including several international premieres and films scheduled to screen in Toronto. Video booths also are available for additional screenings.

“This is a much more focused market than most,” Sternbaum says. “It’s designed for buyers interested in quality arthouse films, which doesn’t mean just heavy, social dramas but also intelligent comedies and other genres. What you won’t find in the Venice market is ‘Terminator 10,’ since this is not another market for video distributors.”

Major players traditionally have done business in Venice from office suites or poolside at the A-list hotels; if the market maintains its present shape, that appears unlikely to change. Where it promises to have a greater impact is with small to midrange sellers from Europe, Asia and Latin America.

However, while sales offices repped in the inaugural mart may not cover the entire spectrum, Sternbaum points out that a wide cross-section of buyers has registered.

These include reps from Miramax, Fine Line, October Films, Stratosphere, Polygram and the Sundance Channel, as well as Brit outfits such as Artificial Eye and Pathe Distribution. The robust number of Euro buyers includes an especially solid contingent from Germany, reflecting the presence of two new features from that country premiering in official fest berths.

Panel discussions will be organized during the market, including daily buyer sessions every morning at which four key buyers each give a brief presentation illustrating their acquisition line. Afternoon sessions will alternate between information and co-production panels aiming to foster collaboration on developing scripts and projects.

Registration figures indicate that if the Venice market survives its first year and builds on its initially modest dimensions, the potential for success exists. However, the initiative has prompted a less-than-warm welcome from some factions of the Italian film industry, and in particular from venerable Milan-based sales mart Mifed.

“There have been tremendous protests,” Sternbaum says. “Clearly, buyers coming from the U.S. and Latin America may choose not to make the trip twice, and the advent of this market stands to split attendances. It’s also true that any general market like Mifed needs quality films; otherwise they end up catering only to the very commercial, video-oriented end of the market.”

“With sufficient investment and with the establishment of a solid organizational and logistic structure, Venice could potentially become the key fall market appointment to follow AFM in winter and Cannes in the spring,” Laudadio suggests. “In that sense, it represents a concrete threat to Mifed, so I can understand them being worried.”

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