Venice Film Festival 2011

Marco Mueller, now in his eighth (and possibly final) year assembling the Venice lineup, is calling this edition the one “closest to my vision.”

It’s a vision that comprises a strong clutch of studio titles. And it stands as testimony to Mueller’s legacy, whether he stays on or not, that, despite the Lido’s logistical and cost issues, Venice has lured its strongest presence of high-profile English-language movies in recent memory — almost half the lineup.

Sony Pictures Classics has a substantial presence, including both David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” and Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” in competition, as well as the non-competing closing night selection, Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress.” (Parent company Sony also has opening-night pic, George Clooney’s “The Ides of March.”)

“(SPC co-topper) Michael Barker has been warning me of major shifts in policies towards festivals, so we tried to adjust the structure of the festival,” says Mueller, referring to the way Hollywood has generally been avoiding overseas festival launches of late, a policy that Cannes has recently been able to reverse.

One key Mueller tweak was “to inject a couple of hundred younger viewers in the stiff gala crowd every evening,” as well as “a big push to have different types of audiences attending every single screening.” That way, he believes, Venice could become a more accurate testing ground for films.

But the bigger studio presence is also symptomatic of the fact that, amid signs of a partial post-financial crisis recovery in the industry, “within the studio system there is still plenty of margin for very personal, very original filmmaking,” Mueller says.

Among many important ties cultivated by the Venice topper since taking the reins in 2004 is his relationship with Steven Soderbergh, who is coming this year with biohazard thriller “Contagion.”

“I’m very proud that Steven, and through him Warner Bros., has been supporting us from my very first year, when ‘Bubble’ was in Venice,” he says.

At the same time, Mueller regrets that Fox — “the first major to approach us this year” — is not represented on the Lido for the “obvious reason” that Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” toplines Clooney, which would have made for two Clooney movies.

So Fox’s “The Descendants” will instead world preem in Toronto, with which Mueller’s relationship is tense.

“I understand their predicament,” he says. “Whenever they have a chance to demand absolute virginity, they will go for that. But obviously a lot of producers and distributors do understand what kinds of films will profit better from using the Venice platform.”

As for Toronto’s new venue, the Bell Lightbox, Mueller says he’s impressed, but adds that it just can’t compete with the cachet of the Lido’s red carpet.

“The fact that we are still using our historical venue from the days when the festival was created means a lot. There is an atmosphere there, especially now that the buildings have been refurbished. It really is a very glamorous red carpet,” he boasts.

Never mind the fact that there is still a gigantic hole in the ground, dubbed “ground zero” by Lido locals, on the site of where the now scrapped new Palazzo del Cinema was supposed to be built. (See story, page 28.)

And because Venice features only world preems — 65 this year — it is second only to Cannes in terms of international press, Mueller maintains.

So Toronto doesn’t seem that much of a threat. Instead, he predicts, eventually what could change the whole fall festival system is Telluride.

“This is really the year when I felt the presence of Telluride in a very conspicuous way, because they made a move toward several European films,” he says.

And the fact that Telluride doesn’t announce its lineup until the first day of the festival “means that they can be perceived as the very special place to premiere a film with a lot of hype coming from top media.”

But aside from purely strategic and structural issues, the philosophy behind Mueller’s vision is probably best expressed by this passage in his lineup statement: “Orphans of certainties and truths, cinema has adopted us, offering us an extraordinary redemption: the feeling of being able to belong in this world. … We therefore had to make an effort to give something back to cinema: in my case with the unwavering passion and determination with which, with a very driven team, we assembled, for those who make movies, for those who make them circulate, and for those who go see them, this 68th edition of the festival.”

As for his prospects of staying on as Lido Lord, Mueller is adamant that he wants to go back to producing. Since Venice’s future depends on Italy’s volatile politics, that may well be the best way to play his hand. Meanwhile, swan song or not, he’s making a statement with his eighth Venice lineup.

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2011:

Mueller navigates art, biz and glamour | Impressive lineup builds on perfect ’10 | | Art pics join Cattleya herd | Venice addresses venue woes with fresh plans | Horizon titles complement competish titles
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