Venice: Launch pad of classics

Lido legends started as the fresh voices of tomorrow

Marco Mueller is clearly straying from tried-and-tested festival templates this year, in a conceptually bold attempt to concoct a tremendously fresh and stimulating Venice.

And, as is often the case with the dynamics of fest assembling, the Lido artistic director’s departure is dictated by not only a reinventive vision but also some uncontrollable factors, including those caused by the current industry climate.

In the U.S., the long wave of the 2008 economic collapse has finally caught up with the output of films, and the majors are rethinking their marketing strategies.

“It is very clear to me that the film festival policy of the studios has changed,” says Mueller. “Not drastically, but to the point of saying: ‘We don’t need festival exposure for films which can get immediate attention as soon as they are released.’ ”

Also, he adds, you have to take into account one key factor that doesn’t often get mentioned: “How many stars and star directors these days accept (the challenge) to do two full days of media work at a festival?”

The answer, Mueller says, is “very few.”

Certainly not George Clooney or Brad Pitt, as periodically peeved journos at past Venice editions well know. Those guys just show up for the halfhour press conference.

Mueller praises the “clever” execs at Fox Searchlight for its Lido launch of Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.” It’s expected that stars Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder and Vincent Cassel will accompany the pic, making for a glam opening-night red carpet.

The Venice topper is also confident that Warner Bros. made a good move in world-preeming Ben Affleck’s “The Town” in the Lido’s vast out-of-competition section.

“They are going to get tremendous visibility for these films with contained expenditures,” Mueller says.

But he also understands why producer Scott Rudin and Sony have decided to world preem David Fincher’s “The Social Network” at the New York Film Festival instead of offering it to Venice or Toronto.

“When you are talking about films that are not going to get a 900-print U.S. release, it can then become very important that they get the right marketing profile. And in this perspective, how a movie is perceived by the New York critics can be crucial,” Mueller says.

Another twist in this year’s fall festivals scenario: the Toronto fest’s more cutthroat competitive stance.

Anxious to show off its new Bell Lightbox downtown digs, this year Toronto has been a real thorn in the Lido’s side by “trying to prevent all the highly anticipated titles from premiering in Venice,” according to Mueller.

When it comes to the big English-language films, competition is natural.

“But it’s really strange that Toronto should insist on a world premiere of, say, an Indian film or a Chilean film, since (unlike Venice) they show over 300 titles,” the Venice topper laments.

Toronto’s alleged offensive certainly didn’t prevent Venice from landing a rich lineup of world premieres, including Canadian helmer Richard J. Lewis’ Dustin Hoffman starrer “Barney’s Version,” which will world preem in the Lido before segueing to Toronto.

“So at this point, we really should try to find a modus vivendi (with Toronto) because everybody now understands that the two-step operation is the winning one,” says Mueller.

“In Venice you create a certain kind of visibility, centered on the cultural importance of the film, and you get the glamour pictures. And then you continue to establish all of that, and you add the market value in Toronto,” he explains.

Another contingency factor Mueller is contending with this year are logistical constraints due to ongoing construction on the fest’s new Palazzo Del Cinema, the shuttering of the historic Hotel Des Bains hub, and a trim to the fest’s budget that Biennale prexy Paolo Baratta says will make for a more “sober” edition.

So what is Venice’s new vision?

Mueller has reconfigured the competitive Horizons section, opening it up to experimental works in all formats, selected the youngest crop of directors (with a couple of exceptions) in recent Lido memory to make the cut for the main competition and carefully calibrated his mix of classic auteur cinema with genre fare, including a retro celebrating sometimes critically reviled Italian comedies, which in the past would have been considered sacrilege.

But actually, Mueller says his Venice reinvention just draws on the roots of the world’s oldest cinema celebration.

“About halfway through the selection, we said, ‘OK: Venice was very exciting during the late ’40s, the ’50s and up to the mid-’60s, not because it was the place where you would necessarily see all the big films or understand everything that was happening in that particular year (highbrow and lowbrow, big and small movies), but Venice was the place where you would get an indication of what was about to happen next,’ ” he says.

He says that reactions to his new Horizons section in the international indie community have been very encouraging.

“It’s quite exciting that the directors coming this year are also the types of directors who will want to go see the films that other people have made,” Mueller says. “I know for sure that Darren Aronofsky will go catch all the films that he can during the first days of the festival.

“In a way it’s a good thing that the completely press-junket-centered participation at the festival is no longer happening, because those would be very expensive people to bring to Venice, who would not see any other films but their own — supposing they would even stay for the screening of their film.”

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