Rome Film Festival Reinvents Itself Again With Slimmed-Down Event

Angely revoluciji Angels of Revolution Rome

When Marco Mueller took over as Rome Film Festival director prior to the event’s 2012 edition, he brought more than three decades of experience amassed at Venice, Locarno and Rotterdam. But nothing prepared him for the ensuing Roman roller-coaster ride, full of twists and turns dictated by Italian politics and the economy, an experience he compares with being on a mission out of “The Expendables” franchise.

“Being so closely connected to the various centers of power in Italy, I had to learn how to comply even with requests that were not clearly formulated,” Mueller says.

After two years of changing formulas, political battles and budget cuts, this year’s festival, which runs Oct. 16-25, reflects Mueller’s invention of the “new metropolitan fest” concept, a plan that comes in response to the culture ministry’s dictum to go the full route of being a “festa” (Italian for “party”), in order to differentiate Rome from Venice as well as Turin, Italy’s small but respected ultra-indie event.

The budget of $7.6 million — down from around $14 million in 2013 — is a far cry from his first Rome edition in 2012, for which Mueller scrambled to secure nearly 60 world preems in four months, including Walter Hill’s Sylvester Stallone-starrer “Bullet to the Head,” injecting an element of novelty to the fest, and prompting a rise in international accreditations. But inevitably, he also scraped the bottom of the barrel with some titles, such as Roman Coppola’s unanimously panned Charlie Sheen-starrer “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III.”

Though he says he battled conflicting signals in that initial fest, Mueller maintains he was following his mandate at the time. By 2013, however, he says he got “hints” from the Italo powers “that we needed to steer away from being a (bona fide film) festival, and go more in the direction of being a festa.”

In other words, political leaders wanted a populist celebration of cinema more along the lines established by Rome’s former mayor Walter Veltroni, the film-buff pol who officiated at George Clooney’s wedding in Venice and had launched the Eternal City fest in 2006, with plenty of fanfare and a generous $15 million budget. So last year, Mueller did away with the world preems, and brought in some of the big titles from Toronto and New York.

This year’s festival is slimmed down further, to 40 films compared with 70 in 2013. Again receiving his marching orders late, Mueller says he had little over three months to come up with the goods.

He’s done away with a jury, and instead ticket holders will vote on the winners for each of Rome’s new sections: Cinema of Today (world, international or European premieres of edgy fare, like Takashi Miike’s hotly anticipated blood fest “As the Gods Will”), Gala (more star-driven titles such as “Gone Girl,” “Black and White” and “Still Alice”),  Mondo Genre (“Nightcrawler” and “Tusk” among the pics), Italian Perspectives (new trends in local cinema) and kiddie-dedicated Alice in the City. The idea is to provide distributors with a testing ground for many different types of pics.

Joining Miike’s film among the premieres are Russian auteur Aleksey Fedorchenko’s “Angels of Revolution,” hot docu “Jia Zhang-ke by Walter Salles” from the Brazilian director, and Belgian helmer Gust Van den Berghe’s genre pic “Lucifer.”

Enough stars are expected on the Eternal City Parco della Musica Auditorium red carpet — including Clive Owen, the star of the Steven Soderbergh exec produced skein “The Knick”; Richard Gere (“Time Out of Mind”); and Kevin Costner (“Black and White”) — to keep Romans and the paparazzi pacified.

Rome’s new audience-leaning vibe, and a small but tasty roster of world preems, may explain this year’s 25% increase in international industryites signed up for the fest’s informal Business Street market.

So despite all the impediments, or maybe because of them, Mueller may finally have found the right formula for Rome.

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  1. Harold von Kursk says:

    The above article is a classic example soft PR journalism that Variety should avoid and which would put most flaks to shame. Living in Rome, I have had a chance to speak to many industry observers regarding the festival and the general reaction is that this is a festival which has lost its purpose and has no clear vision of where it is headed. And that is being kind.

    Your correspondent Nick Vivarelli may enjoy pretending that fest director Marco Mueller is merely responding to political pressure by putting on a third-rate event – i.e. a “festa” rather than a festival, whatever that really means – but the sad truth is that Rome has degenerated into a regional rather than international or European event. It is certainly no longer the kind of festival which will attract major celebrities (or even invite them) nor will it cause much of a blip in the European or international press.

    The first sign of the decline and fall of the Rome festival is that even with a $7.6 million budget, the organisation cannot afford to print an official catalogue – instead they offer public and press alike a cheap, paper programme with only minimal information on each film. Another sign is the near total absence of major actors, actresses, and directors. This year, only Kevin Costner, Richard Gere, and Clive Owen will be in attendance which your Variety author suggests is a way of “pacifying” the public. Of course, this implies that the general impression the public has of the festival is so poor and expectations are so low that the public indeed requires “pacification” to deflect attention from the staggering lack of “buzz” or anticipation about this year’s event.

    Publicists are very worried that the festival is in serious decline and that may account for why Kristen Stewart backed out of attending the event at the last minute. Although star power should not be the only barometer of a film festival’s standing, it is clear that under the current leadership (or lack of same) the Rome event is aiming to become a minor regional “festa” that rivals Zurich or Goteborg and no longer wants to assert itself as a mini-major occupying the gap between Venice/Toronto and Berlin.

    Further, Toronto can get away with not having a jury because it is the world’s largest platform for Hollywood films and most of the top actors and actresses attend the event each year. Surely it cannot be that expensive for Rome to put together a film jury with a mix of stars, directors, critics, and producers who will choose the best film of the competitive section? Having the public vote on the best film may seem politically correct, but it hardly distinguishes Rome as a serious film festival.

    The raison d’etre of the Rome festival is in serious doubt and your writer has merely hinted at the nature of the illness rather than addressing the underlying concern that the patient is in critical condition.

    For whatever reason, your correspondent has failed to explain that the Rome festival is burning while Marco Mueller is fiddling away. That is the sad truth that Variety should be explaining to its readers.

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