U.S. studios taking advantage of Venice opportunities

Maybe it’s Venice’s aura of romance and old-world elegance, or the fact that its festival is geared more to the cineaste than the merchant. But for American film execs who are either making the trip for the first time or have made it an annual pilgrimage, attending Venice is a no-brainer.

Beyond its strategic importance as the pre-eminent fall launchpad for American product in Europe, Venice has given Americans added incentive by inaugurating a market this year, its tentative nature notwithstanding. Among the U.S. companies that have registered include Miramax, Fine Line, October Films, Stratosphere, Polygram and the Sundance Channel.

But for many Americans, it will be business as usual, regardless of the market’s official status. “I approach any setting that has a lot of film people as potential to do business,” says Scott Greenstein, co-president of October Films. “The best example I can give you is ‘A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries’ (screening out of competition). That movie came about by me approaching (producer) Ismail Merchant last year in Venice and saying ‘I hear you have this movie,’ but there were some casting issues. At the time it was set up at New Line. The next thing I knew we had the movie. So I used last year’s Venice as a dealmaking festival.”

For Rick Sands, chairman of worldwide distribution at Miramax Films, the market aspect of Venice will make no difference whatsoever in the way the company will conduct its affairs. “We have meetings with all the distributors who attend,” says Sands. “And we do our business at every festival.”

Mark Ordesky, president of Fine Line, feels the market component will make Venice a little more user-friendly from an acquisitions standpoint. “It means there’s going to be a forum for second and third screenings of films that historically have been a little difficult to see after their main play.”

Despite the conspicuous presence of big-name American product this year, Venice has had a tendency to be a little more Eurocentric than most. And under Ordesky, whose background in world-cinema will poise Fine Line toward more foreign-language fare, the confluence of fest and market this year bodes well for the company’s new direction.

“We are hiring someone out of our London office, a trilingual executive, who’s going to be focusing exclusively on foreign-language talent and films both from a distribution standpoint and a remake standpoint. And that person will be aboard in time for Venice.”

But while Venice’s foray into market waters is good news for many, it will no doubt leave an equal number of people a little wistful. “One thing I worry about is Venice has maintained such a unique profile, and it’s such a loved and enjoyable festival probably because there hasn’t been a market,” says Hilary Clark, senior VP of international publicity at 20th Century Fox. “One of the reasons Cannes is such a zoo is because the market is going on simultaneously. And Venice has always had such enormous charm — not just because it’s such a beautiful backdrop but because it was really about celebrating the films at the festival.”

While last year Venice programming director Felice Laudadio was very critical of the American studios’ bent toward “consumer cinema,” resulting in a dearth of big stars and heavyweight titles, there appears to be no backlash from the majors, with such films as DreamWorks’ “Saving Private Ryan” opening the festival, MGM’s “Ronin” making its world premiere, Paramount’s “The Truman Show” appearing in Nights and Stars, and Fox’s “Bulworth” competing for the fest’s Golden Lion award.

Given Venice’s cachet as a haven for serious films, Fox’s entry of “Bulworth” — which received critical raves in the U.S. but did poorly at the box office — into the main competition represents a coup for both the studio and the festival. “Felice’s a smart man and a competitive one,” says Clark. “He’d read many of the reviews and called us to organize a screening. And I don’t think we had a chance to catch our breath or to follow up. He was right back to us offering a competition slot. And of course we were pleased.”

And if the big studio fare might be stealing the thunder of some of the indies who traditionally hold court at Venice, a company like Miramax, which is being represented by John Dahl’s “Rounders” and Woody Allen’s “Celebrity,” doesn’t appear to be threatened. “We compete in the marketplace against the majors every day,” says Miramax’s Sands. “This is just an extension of that. We’re not worried about the change in programming. It’s good to have big stars at the festival. You get picked up by more newspapers and more festival press around the world, and in theory, it can elevate the event.”

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