Big-budget studio films bow, compete at Venice

Marco Muller, in his third year as Venice artistic director, says he really put his stamp on the Lido fest this time.

“We went in exactly the direction we wanted to pursue, and I think we have been successful,” the Lido topper boasts in the bar of Rome’s Excelsior Hotel in late July, the day after unveiling a promising lineup centered around a 21-pic competish, which — despite an ample American presence of five U.S. entries — is especially geographically diverse. All titles will unspool as world preems — a first in the fest’s postwar history.

Muller last year took a radical tack to reshaping Venice, slashing the number of pics from 84 to 56.

His less-is-more move paid off: “Brokeback Mountain,” which had been rejected by Cannes, segued from winning the Golden Lion to striking Oscar gold, while a total 23 Oscar noms were garnered by pics that launched from the Lido.

In addition to being an effective gateway to Oscar, the Lido reinforced its role as an international box office booster for more offbeat titles, like Philip Groning’s monk-life docu “Into Great Silence,” which went No. 1 in Germany after preeming in Venice last year.

As Cannes becomes an ever-broader showcase, but with few “finds,” and Berlin is busy boosting its market side, Venice seems to be raising its status among major fests simply by sniffing out hot pics and serving them up slower, at the start of the fall season.

Per Muller, it boils down to how much interest you can attract: “I think you can definitely draw a lot of attention to about 50 movies (excluding special events) if you have 12 very strong American titles, but also some quite surprising, highly original entries from totally uncharted territories.”

This year, the Lido lord relishes the fact that, for the first time, Warner Bros., Fox and Universal have opted for competition slots instead of playing it safe by showcasing out-of-competish.

Darren Aronofsky’s romantic fantasy “The Fountain,” which is believed to have been pulled from Cannes for lack of a Croisette competish berth, goes out Stateside in October via WB, with Fox handling some international territories.

Universal has two pics vying for a Golden Lion: the Alfonso Cuaron sci-fier “Children of Men” and Brian De Palma’s James Ellroy adaptation “The Black Dahlia,” the festival’s opener, with stars Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank and Josh Hartnett in tow.

But Muller also is particularly pleased that the Republic of Chad, at the heart of the African continent, is at the Lido for the first time, with the civil-war-themed “Daratt,” by Saleh Haroun (“Bye Africa”), “one of the strongest African films ever made,” he says.

And he’s proud that one-third of the lineup comes from young filmmakers; indeed, 11 films are first works.

The paradox with Venice is that, since Muller has come onboard, contingency factors tied to Italian politics have actually played in the fest’s favor. Politics, though, could also sink the Lido event.

Muller slashed the number of Venice titles after a glut of galas provoked organizational pandemonium during his first edition, which had been hastily assembled because pols had long dithered before he got the job.

Concurrently, Muller and Davide Croff, topper of the fest’s parent org, the Venice Biennale, began pushing for construction of a new Palazzo del Cinema to replace the current Fascist-era facility and breathe new life into the old Grand Dame.

Since then, the nascent ambitious RomeFilmFest, which will debut in October in the Italian capital, has started to pose a long-term threat (see separate story).

But the rival Rome fest in the short term could prove beneficial to Venice — at least as far as getting the new palazzo built.

In an effort to downplay the rivalry between the two events — and also to appear impartial — Italo culture czar Francesco Rutelli, who is a former Rome mayor, has pledged to support the futuristic new palazzo project.

The x100 million ($120 million) structure, which would boost screen capacity big time, provide two catwalks with sea views, plus a bona-fide market facility, is crucial. Whether it actually materializes, however, remains to be seen.

Venice’s other longtime structural plague, its politically appointed revolving-door directors (five in the past 10 years), does not seem solvable anytime soon. Yet, it is likely Muller will at least complete his four-year mandate before going back to producing.

“Everybody has been asking me: ‘Will you stay on?'” says Muller. “But that’s not the question. The question is: Can this formula lead to something interesting and important, and the answer is yes, if we know by the end of the year that the palazzo is going to be built. The answer is no if Venice and its future will continue to be linked — as it always was in the past — to the ups and downs, and sudden twists and turns, of Italian politics.”

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