Costs, questions about fest's biz focus cloud opinions

French sales companies are a dominant force in the indie film market, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Venice, with 10 of the 23 competish pics repped by Paris companies. But their opinion of Venice is mixed.

Hengameh Panahi of Celluloid Dreams — which reps competition pic “Lebanon” —  is a fervent supporter. “It is an amazing festival. I love going there,” she says. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

For Panahi, its smaller size — Venice has little more than 100 features, whereas Toronto, for example, has around 250 — and its lack of a formal market is a strength. Venice provides an opportunity to watch films, seek out new talent and projects, and touch base with old friends in a relaxed atmosphere, unlike Cannes and Berlin, where an agent can be stuck in a booth with meetings booked every 30 minutes.

Eric Lagesse, CEO of  Pyramide Films — whose “Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story” screens out of competish — is less enthusiastic. “The big problem is that they really don’t care about the industry and it is the industry that makes the festival, and they don’t understand that,” he says.

He concedes that it is a prestigious event and is well-programmed, but it has its faults. “The problem is they never, ever could organize themselves as a market,” Lagesse says. “Going there costs a fortune, and so all the small independent companies could just stop going there.”

The consensus is that if you don’t have a film in the fest, then you don’t go to Venice, you go straight to Toronto. Camille Neel, who handles sales for Bac Films, is doing just that. The last time he attended Venice was in 2006.

“There was not the kind of energy you have in Berlin, AFM and Cannes. There was no real marketplace,” he says. “At least 90% of the buyers attending Venice will be in Toronto the week after.”

Venice unique strength is the number of European buyers who attend, says Co-production Office chief Philippe Bober, who has “Lourdes,” “Tetsuo the Bullet Man” and “Women Without Men” in competition. This is significant because Europe accounts for at least 70% of the revenue for sellers of international pics, he says.

But although Venice is a good place to meet European buyers, Bober feels there is a need for a European market — or a festival that can act as a market — in the autumn.

“Most of the sales agents of non-Hollywood films are in Europe and most of the buyers are in Europe, and it is kind of absurd for European sellers and European buyers to meet at, let’s say, the AFM, so there is a need for something in Europe in the fall,” he says.

When Mifed closed its doors, Venice had an opportunity to adopt some of the market functions that the Milan event performed, but, Lagesse says, Venice is too rigid and unable to evolve. “It is the Rome Film Festival (in October) that is going to win the battle in terms of market,” he says.

Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, a partner at Films Distribution — which has competish title “Il grande sogno” and Venice Days titles “Cell 211″ and “The Horde” — is more supportive.

“For us, Venice has had its ups and downs regarding its market value but it remains a very good launch pad,” he says.

He sees a synchronicity between the three major festivals in August and September. “It is a good balance to have Locarno, where you do some pickups, and Venice, where you get exposure on some of the movies that are then going to be ready to be sold in Toronto. The rhythm is pretty good.”

When seen as one part of that triptych, he says, Venice works well for sales companies, serving as a place for buyers and the press to preview films, and start the buzz that can then be capitalized on with deals in Toronto.

For Films du Losange’s Agathe Valentin — who reps competish pic “36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup” — it is all about the films, and she is convinced that a good film will find buyers, regardless of where it screens.

Panahi concurs but also suggests that festivals, even if they don’t always generate sales, serve a crucial role in the life of the industry. “You need to be nourished by cinema, and all sorts of films,” she says. “And for that festivals are a blessing.”

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