Doing the bicontinental

It takes Canada and Italy to really rumba

Getting a movie into both Venice and Toronto is the dream ticket for many international sales agents. It reps a powerful combo of critical exposure and near-perfect access to distributors. But sellers and fest programmers alike are learning to play different variations of the game.

“Venice is for the name, for the prestige. Toronto is for sales,” says Fred Tsui, senior manager, distribution and production at Media Asia. The Hong Kong major has two movies in both places: the Ziyi Zhang starrer “The Banquet” and helmer Johnnie To’s latest mafia drama, “Exiled.”

“This really works for us,” Tsui explains, “because many buyers don’t go to both places — or in the case of the studios, they often only send their junior buyers to Venice. Toronto has too many films, so having a Venice premiere will help navigation.”

While Focus Features’ Loran Tee suspects that the two fests are programmed with a view over the shoulder at each other’s lineups, this marketing guru says there are plenty of differences between the events.

“Both are useful for promotion in their region — Venice for Europe, Toronto for North America — which is why we try to do both,” Tee says. “Venice is about working with the media, Toronto connecting with the buyers.”

Talk like this may be a blow to the ego of Venice head Marco Muller. After all, he once threatened to resign if Venice didn’t develop into a full-fledged market, and he continues to upgrade the “Industry Office” on the Lido.

But his event wins plenty of plaudits. “Venice is not a market. It is a real festival, a world stage, and it is great for launching films,” Tee says. “Marco Muller has it quite good. He doesn’t need to add a market. The festival is not so manic. People can have fun and actually watch the films.”

Paris-based sales specialist Celluloid Dreams has long regarded Toronto as a special event. “It is the last big festival of the summer season, and we’ve always tried to do something different there,” says the firm’s marketing and publicity manager, Gordon Spragg.

Although getting attention at the crowded Toronto fest can be hard, Spragg says it still represents good value: “While there are important buyers in Venice and international press, everything is expensive, especially hotels and flights.”

Problem for Venice is that those few hotels on the Lido are in such a privileged position that some seek to ask guests for bookings the length of the festival, even if their stay is just a few days.

“Festivals and markets are 10 days long, but buyers only stay four or five days at any of them. That’s because the growth in box office has not kept pace with the expanding number of festivals and markets,” says Wouter Barendrecht, co-chair of Fortissimo Films, a Hong Kong- and Amsterdam-based sales house with nine films in Toronto. Hence a need for efficiency.

Barendrecht makes another distinction between the events. He says Venice is about critics, festival programmers and European cinema owners, while Toronto is about audiences.

“We did very well with ‘Ken Park’ and ‘Mysterious Skin’ by starting them at Venice, where they found critical support. But we did well by starting (Chinese drama) ‘Shower’ at Toronto, where audiences are well-educated.”

Toronto’s ticket buyers may be among the most influential anywhere. Several audience award-winning movies, including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Crash,” have gone on to be Oscar winners. The fest has all the ingredients necessary to make it the starting gun for the Academy Award season, and that includes a strong North American media presence, star power and gala events that showcase talent and pictures without the risks associated with a competitive event.

“I’m only really aware of what Venice is doing when it concerns a Chinese film — they are almost obsessed with Venice and feel their films need the status associated with competition,” says Giovanna Fulvi, one of Toronto’s international programmers. “We have some of the same films, but we are able to show them differently. At Toronto we have a bit more room and don’t have to insist on world premieres.”

Among her Asian selections this year, Fulvi has nevertheless managed four preems, including Ann Hui’s contempo drama about a Shanghai woman’s retirement, titled “The Aunt’s Postmodern Life” and starring Siqin Gaowa and Chow Yun-fat.

Even though buyers, sellers and programmers love to plot and strategize about the Toronto-Venice axis, their calculations may be thrown off this year by the launch of the new October fest in Rome. “It has been the big unknown this year,” says Spragg.

At least one big Chinese contender for a foreign film Oscar, the Tian Zhuangzhuang-helmed “Go Master,” has already been seduced.

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