Rome Film Festival Reinvents Itself Again With Slimmed-Down Event

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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