Alberto-Barbera Big Break Variety
Caroline Andrieu for Variety

Venice Film Festival director Alberto Barbera has been assembling film events for more than 30 years, during which he’s scoured the planet seeking fresh fare, and seen the global fest circuit become much more competitive, impersonal and beholden to marketing machines. His first mention in Variety dates to 1989, the year he was appointed head of what was then known as the Turin Young Cinema Festival, now the Turin Film Festival.

Turin rapidly became a standout on Italy’s then proliferating fest circuit.

At the time, Turin was one of the few true metropolitan festivals with real local audiences. And the formula was totally new. It was partly dedicated to first and second works, and then it had an open space where anyone could bring their movie or video on a first-come, first-served basis.  So auteurs had a dedicated space, and the press loved it because the whole festival was dedicated to new directors. It was one of the first festivals that worked on novelties and emerging directors, and the possibilities offered by new technologies.

What made Turin stand out for me when I first started going there in the 1990s was the strong rapport it had with the American indie world. I remember meeting Alexander Payne there when he was still pretty unknown even in the U.S.

The advantage of those years is that the big A-list festivals didn’t dedicate themselves that much to discoveries; they were for directors who had already gained recognition. It was the smaller festivals, like Turin, Rotterdam and Locarno who worked on doing the exploring and discovering.

What’s one of your fondest memories of those pioneering days?

I remember traveling all over the world and arriving in places I’d never been before. I remember traveling with Marco Mueller in Alma-Ata (now Almaty), Kazakhstan, in the early 1990s. It
was the first time Western film festival directors made their way there. They put us up in the quarters where heads of state slept, gave us banquets. It was incredible!  In those days you could go around the world and find films and directors that nobody had come across before. And there wasn’t any competition to where you had to grab a film away from another festival, and all that.

So it was really like being a diplomat — all about building rapport.

It was easy to build privileged relationships with the indies, be they American or from other parts of the world. You met people, you became friends, developed trust. You were offering them a platform, a real opportunity for international promotion. We brought Alexander Payne over with the first short he did as a UCLA student, and then of course he came back in coming years with his feature films.

When did this start to change?

At the end of the 1990s, the big festivals realized they had to have a different attitude, and devote more attention to young directors. They started competing with smaller festivals. But for me, it all started in Turin. So when I arrived in Venice, I brought with me this baggage of experience and this attitude; this curiosity for what’s new, well beyond known names and the status quo.

And what’s it like today?

It’s a lot more complicated. What’s missing today is the immediacy of those times. Then, you had a direct rapport with a director or a producer. Now it’s an infinite mediation through a series of filters made up by sales agents, the director’s personal PR people, international or domestic marketing people, reps for the financiers. Of course, in many cases there is still a direct rapport with the director or with some producers, but that’s no longer the norm.

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