Departure could weaken film festival

Will the recent resignation of Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni jeopardize the Rome Film Festival?

The film-buff pol, who launched the Eternal City fest as his pet project while in office in 2005, is running for prime minister against Silvio Berlusconi in the April 13-14 election.

On the surface, not much is expected to change for the deep-pocketed Rome event. But the absence of such a passionate supporter, who counts Roberto De Niro and Tom Cruise as friends, may eventually take its toll on its big budget and ambition.

Outgoing Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli, himself a former Rome mayor, is widely expected to be voted Veltroni’s replacement atop Rome’s Capitoline Hill. Rutelli agrees with Veltroni’s mantra that Italy’s film industry hub must have a high-profile fest.

“Rutelli has always been in favor of the Rome festival,” said Giorgio Gosetti, co-director of the fest’s official selection.

Even if Rutelli were to lose the Rome race, Gosetti emphasized, it would be a bad move for any future mayor to do away with or even downsize the fest, which is popular with film buffs and industryites — and has also become a magnet for tourism.

“The machine has been set in motion, so it would be unpopular to dismantle or damage it,” Gosetti said.

And even if Veltroni’s gone, his powerful right-hand man, Rome fest prexy Goffredo Bettini, is still aboard.

Bettini is a former senator who heads the Rome fest’s Cinema per Roma foundation while also running Veltroni’s campaign.

He recently pointed out that, unlike Venice, Rome is mostly financed by corporate sponsors, which makes it less susceptible than the Lido to the volatile political climate.

Nevertheless, Rome will no longer have a champion as driven as Veltroni, who last year jetted to L.A. to meet Warner Bros. Entertainment chairman-CEO Barry Meyer; DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg; toppers at Sony, Fox, Universal and New Line; as well as chiefs at percenteries CAA, ICM and UTA.

And should Veltroni become the new prime minister — he’s trailing Berlusconi by three points, according to a poll released Monday by pubcaster RAI — the fest’s new circumstances are unlikely to change.

“He would be too busy to even think about the Rome fest; and also, as prime minister, if he intervened, it would be too blatant favoritism against Venice,” said an insider.

A Berlusconi return to office could, in theory, damage Veltroni’s brainchild, but only tangentially, especially if Rutelli replaces Veltroni as mayor.

As for Venice, its main strength lies not in Rome’s possible weakening but in artistic director Marco Mueller, who recently reupped for another four years.

In a recent interview with Daily Variety, Mueller said he envies Rome’s $24 million budget — Venice had about $15 million at its disposal last year. That budget disparity is likely to level out in future editions as new Venice Biennale topper lures more private sponsors, while Venice equips itself with a futuristic $100 million Palazzo del Cinema due for completion in 2010. 

Mueller has also questioned the Rome fest’s Oct. 22-31 dates that this year will overlap with those of the London Film Festival.

Mueller said he’s always told Rome’s organizers that the fest should be held in the summer.

This year Mueller said he’s courting Meryl Streep as jury prexy for Venice’s 65th edition, running Aug. 27-Sept. 6, though talk of titles is premature.

The more populist Eternal City event, which after two years still lacks a real identity, has so far secured the presence of the Dalai Lama for a day “dedicated to the Tibetan people” and will include pics from the past such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha” and Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun.”

“The impact of Veltroni’s departure isn’t clear yet,” said one insider. “But there is a real risk that Rome will lose steam while Venice continues to go strong.”

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