Venice star power ramped up

VENICE — The first edition of the Venice Intl. Film Festival under new artistic director Marco Muller begins today amid hopes that a facelift for the event — including a E1 million ($1.2 million) catwalk in front of the Palazzo del Cinema — is not merely cosmetic but the start of real revitalization.

Muller already has sought to boost the fest’s Hollywood pic and star quotient, with Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise and John Travolta expected to attend and Scarlett Johansson a member of the fest jury.

Muller, who took over in March after predecessor Moritz de Hadeln was ousted due to a political spat, is both a veteran fest assembler — he previously headed Locarno and Rotterdam — and a producer and industry operator.

But his newcomer status and industry ties haven’t exempted him from early griping.

Producer Dino De Laurentiis lashed out against the fest, telling a local paper: “Venice has lost its top-dog status to Cannes and even Berlin.”

He also slammed the infrastructure and hotels (a constant moan among industryites); described the main screening facility, the Sala Grande, as “a morgue”; and suggested the event be moved from the Lido to Venice proper.

Complaints about screening venues are being addressed by the event’s parent org, the Venice Biennale, which has formed a committee that will select one of 10 plans being drawn up for a Palazzo del Cinema.

As for De Laurentiis’ other frustrations, Muller said, “The Lido is our Croisette. It’s the only place that can accommodate large crowds and also has two huge luxury hotels.

“As for comparisons with Cannes and Berlin, I’m not worried about hierarchies. My ambition is to run a very good fest, and I’ll let you be the judge.”

Apart from De Laurentiis’ comments, Muller said he’s had few complaints from local industryites — so far.

Meanwhile, a slew of A-list U.S. talent will strut their stuff along Muller’s lavish new walkway, paid for with sponsor funding outside the Biennale budget, in coming days.

Pressed by distribution deadlines, lots of U.S. studio titles are crammed in the first week.

Hanks, star of opening out-of-competition pic “The Terminal,” and jury member Johansson will lead the way.

Johansson also stars in “A Love Song for Bobby Long,” U.S. documaker Shainee Gabel’s first feature, which opens the Venice Horizons sidebar.

“Love Song” co-star Travolta is expected on the Lido Thursday.

Washington is confirmed to attend for “The Manchurian Candidate,” which unspools out of competition Thursday, and for “Man on Fire,” which will be shown the same day in the Midnight section. Tom Cruise is Lido-bound to tub-thump “Collateral” on Friday, organizers said.

“A festival just cannot do without the presence of stars. And this year I have realized, like never before, that American stars have an extra spark,” Muller told Daily Variety.

“Their European colleagues are great professionals. They have great technique and intensity, but maybe they lack what makes a protagonist a star.”

While studio pics and commercially viable fare are a fixture of this year’s Venice, they do not dominate the fest, which still has several competition entries lacking distribution, including Todd Solondz’s teen-pregnancy drama “Palindromes.”

Paramount has pulled its retro sci-fier “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” ostensibly because the effects-laden pic is not ready. This purported production delay is not expected to affect the pic’s mid-September U.S. release.

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