Festival's industry crowds sparser than usual

Early chatter on the Lido is centering around concerns that Venice fest topper Marco Mueller’s gamble in spotlighting lesser-known, if respected, filmmakers could backfire in terms of the fest’s media profile.

The Venice fest has never been a major industry magnet, but the biz crowds this year are sparser than usual.

A number of sales agents, PR companies and journos who would usually be seen on the hotel terraces of the Excelsior and Des Bains talking shop and drinking bellinis have given this year’s fest a pass, with many opting instead for a one-stop Toronto trek.

U.K.-based praisery DDA and Hong Kong-based sales outfit Fortissimo Films are two examples of the absentees. Also missing in action are reps from Fox, Miramax, Disney and Paramount.

One explanation for their absence could just be that they didn’t have films in selection.

“It’s very simple,” Celluloid Dreams topper Hengameh Panahi told Daily Variety. “If you have movies here, you come, and if don’t have any movies here, then you don’t. Toronto and Venice are different, and they have different perspectives, but they’re both good.”

Even the splashy opening day, replete with appearances by Brad Pitt and George Clooney to tubthump “Burn After Reading,” was a source of frustration for the attending press contingent. Neither Pitt nor Clooney did any interviews beyond their half-hour press conference. That left some journos looking at the remainder of the lineup and wondering whether they would have enough material to justify the exorbitant costs of traveling to Venice.

“I’ve been coming here for 25 years,” one journo said. “I might not be able to come back next year if I don’t get enough interviews.”

Discussions about Venice’s future were also in the air when the first brick was symbolically laid toward construction of a futuristic new $100 million Palazzo del Cinema, which Biennale prexy Paolo Baratta said would finally give Venice infrastructure on a par with that of the world’s other top-tier fests. Completion is expected by 2011, but by next year, the fest will already have a refurbished 2,150-seat Sala Grande, which Baratta has boasted will be “a temple of high tech.”

New digs will go some way toward restoring the Lido’s cachet as an awards season launching pad.

Last year, studios lined up in Venice to launch their Oscar contenders, including “Atonement,” “Michael Clayton,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “In the Valley of Elah.”

This edition is simply thinner on high-profile English-language fare.

“We might not be an Oscar driver, but maybe that’s not what we needed. This year, I think we will still be the trend-setters,” Mueller said

The Lido lord also praised Sony Picture Classics, which is world preeming Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” starring Anne Hathaway, in competition.

“For us it was important that regardless of the pressure that Toronto put, Sony still chose Venice as the ideal platform to start the international career of the film,” Mueller said.

While there were no A-list Yank talent gracing the catwalk Thursday, two of world cinema’s biggest-name auteurs were in town. Japan’s Takeshi Kitano and Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, who preemed “Achilles and the Tortoise” and “Shirin,” respectively, made sure that arthouse appetites were left sated.

In marked contrast to the inane questions thrown at Pitt and Clooney on opening day, Kiarostami had to deal with geopolitical curveballs during his press conference about his experimental digital pic. One reporter asked him to comment on Iran’s nuclear program and hardline prexy Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s outbursts on Israel.

“We are here to talk about cinema and love,” Kiarostami replied. “I don’t want to get involved in current Iranian policy.”

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