Delays stir up Venice gang

VENICE — With late starts and aborted schedules threatening to turn crowds at the 61st Venice Intl. Film Festival into a lynch mob, Harvey Weinstein stepped in as an unlikely ringmaster over the weekend as the snafus reached their peak.

Despite new fest director Marco Muller’s move to streamline the program by showing fewer films, Venice regulars claim delays this year are worse than ever on the Lido, with both press showings and galas unspooling anywhere from 30 minutes to more than two hours late.

The Golden Lion for organizational chaos went to Saturday night’s lineup, culminating with the Midnight premiere of Miramax’s “Finding Neverland,” attended by director Marc Forster and stars Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet.

Scheduled to begin at 11:45 p.m., the screening was bumped back to start after 2 a.m. due to glitches earlier in the evening with the world-premiere gala of Michael Radford’s “The Merchant of Venice.”

Too many tickets

Due to a computer error, about 400 extra tickets were sold to the “Merchant” screening, forcing organizers to call police when double-booked ticket holders refused to leave the Sala Grande. An overflow screening eventually was organized, but not before throwing off the entire evening’s schedule.

Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Sea Within,” due to start at 9:45 p.m., instead got under way at 11:30. That gave Miramax co-chairman Weinstein and the “Finding Neverland” entourage — which included fest guest Quentin Tarantino — plenty of time to linger over their desserts.

“They had assured us that the film would start no later than 12:05,” Weinstein told Daily Variety. “But first we got a call saying it would be 12:30, then another saying 1 a.m., then 1:30 and finally 2. It’s hard to show any movie at that time.”

Despite the late hour, Depp, who had flown in from the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” set in London, signed autographs for hordes of fans waiting outside. While Weinstein claims he has never before taken the stage at a festival to introduce a movie, he made an exception Saturday.

“Welcome to the breakfast club screening of ‘Finding Neverland,’ ” he told the audience. “Johnny and Quentin and I have had Marco Muller measured for cement shoes, and we’ve given him a choice of the lagoon or the pool or the canal. But we’ll give him a reprieve if he stays here to take everyone’s breakfast order.”

Weinstein ushered Depp and Winslet out of the Sala Grande 10 minutes into the film to rest up for their interview schedule the following morning. Forster and Tarantino stayed through the end for a 4:30 a.m. standing ovation.

“The Venice festival is a sentimental favorite of mine, and Marco’s done a great job this year with the premieres,” Weinstein said. “But something’s a little off with the organization, and this was just a good-natured way to point out a problem that somebody had to acknowledge. Marco was a great sport about it.”

Meanwhile, Muller and Davide Croff, president of the Biennale arts foundation that controls the fest, have been in damage control mode, pointing to excessive frontloading of the major studio titles as the cause of delays.

“The major studios have put pressure on us to show plenty of big titles in the first four or five days, due to Deauville and early release dates,” Muller said. “Next year, we will have to deal with that in a totally different way.”

“This year’s festival has been like putting the motor of a Ferrari into a tiny Fiat 500,” Croff added.

Muller also lamented the resistance of the U.S. majors to putting films in competition, outlining a fruitless three-month campaign to include Michael Mann’s “Collateral” among prize contenders. The DreamWorks pic unspooled here out of competition, accompanied by the director and stars Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Selection praised

Despite the beating Muller looks destined to take over organizational problems and the grumbling of U.S. acquisition execs about the dearth of available titles, the new fest chief is getting more upbeat reviews for his selection.

As the fest hit its halfway point, a number of key competition entries have generated generally positive reaction from critics.

Among them are Francois Ozon’s relationship dissection “5×2″; “Howl’s Moving Castle” from Japanese animation wizard Hayao Miyazaki; Mike Leigh’s 1950s-set ensemble drama “Vera Drake”; Arnaud Desplechin’s intersecting tales of a woman and her former husband, “Kings and Queen”; and Amenabar’s drama about a bedridden man who wishes to die, “The Sea Within.”

The Venice fest runs through Saturday.

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