$100 million expansion geared to invigorate the Lido

Last year, amid some fanfare, the first brick was laid of the Venice fest’s futuristic $100 million Palazzo del Cinema, now in an initial construction stage, which will integrate and expand the existing Fascist-era structure.

Since its a work in progress, this year there is a new entrance for festgoers from the dock side of the Casino, since the adjacent building site will be roped off.

Meanwhile, a new, but temporary, 450-seat theater, Sala Perla 2, is being added in front of the Casino, as well as other changes, such as more varied food available until late at night, and better transport, as things progress toward a more thoroughly equipped and user-friendly Venice fest .

And, while the new palazzo catwalk, which will have the sea as its backdrop, is still in the making, a smaller new red carpet is being added for this edition to boost the profile of the fest’s cutting-edge Horizons section.

But it’s not just the world’s oldest film fest that stands to benefit from the revamp.

“Reconstruction of the palazzo is part of a grander new plan to relaunch the whole Lido area,” says Paolo Baratta, prexy of the Venice Biennale, which oversees the fest.

The idea is turn the Lido, which has seen better days since Luchino Visconti shot his 1971 classic “Death in Venice” in its swanky Hotel des Bains, into a topnotch year-round convention hub, a la Cannes.

To this end, the Hotel Excelsior, the fest’s hobnobbing hub, will be shut down for renovations next year. But the Biennale is making arrangements with other hotels, some of which are in Venice proper, to fill the gap in terms of providing top accommodations for talent and execs in 2010.

As for the new digs, completion of which is expected in 2011, the proposed structure, designed by French architect Rudy Ricciotti, will be shaped like an upside-down ship laced in gold leaf. It will comprise a 2,150-seat state-of-the-art Sala Grande plus two smaller screening rooms, all equipped for 4K 3-D, as well as other screening rooms and facilities underneath that will be completed after 2011.

Venice already touts itself as the only film festival in the world with three 4K 3-D equipped screens.

Rather than a stand-alone structure, the new palazzo will actually be a new wing of the existing palazzo, its 1938 facade being restored to its original splendor, while the current 1,000-seat Sala Grande and the existing Sala Perla and Sala Pasinetti will be radically refurbished.

“With a new palazzo and a new Excelsior, the festival will really take on a completely different shine,” Baratta boasts.

The Biennale topper is adamant about having finally found “a new dialogue with businesses on the Lido,” known on the fest circuit for being pricey and unaccommodating.

Starting this year, this will mean fixed-price meals in participating restaurants, discounted cards for land and water buses, and cheap accommodations for students. Once the hotels start working year-round, their costs also are expected to become more reasonable.

“Our motto is: We care,” Baratta says. Early indications are that he has succeeded in persuading the rest of the Lido to follow his lead.

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