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Euro, Asian pix give U.S. fare run for money

ROME — While the star wattage that traditionally keeps Italy’s premier film event aglow will be as bright as ever this year, the 57th Venice Intl. Film Festival is characterized by the low profile of U.S. features — studio product, in particular — and by the muscular roster of European and Asian fare, with Italian entries staging a strong comeback in competition ranks.

But fest director Alberto Barbera wishes to set the record straight as the Aug. 30-Sept. 9 event kicks off: He insists that there’s no anti-Hollywood prejudice in the programming nor any national flag-waving instinct boosting the homegrown contingent.

“In truth, there are not many fewer American films in Venice than in other years,” explains Barbera.

In fact, this year’s total of 15 is marginally down from the usual contingent of 17-20. Perhaps the real change is in the profile of those films, with studio product or pics from the minimajors accounting in the recent past for as many as 14 high-profile slots but occupying only five this year.

The stakes have changed considerably even since Barbera’s debut edition last year, when selections included “Fight Club,” “Being John Malkovich,” “The Cider House Rules,” “Holy Smoke,” “Jesus’ Son,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “October Sky” and “Music of the Heart.”

“It’s clear that something has changed radically,” admits Barbera. “I’d love to invite more American films. The fact is that the studios’ marketing and release patterns are changing so rapidly that Venice is no longer able to draw from a huge well of summer releases.”

Barbera points to the advent of DVD as a key factor in these changes, with the majors bumping up their European releases to go out either simultaneously or hot on the heels of their U.S. bow.

DVD closes window

The time-honored practice of holding big titles for the fall is no longer practical given the brief theatrical window before DVD releases — a globally uniform market thanks to Amazon.com and its ilk — which could presumably cut into international theatrical revenues.

While in past years, summer titles like “Gladiator,” “Mission: Impossible 2,” “X-Men,” “The Patriot” and “Hollow Man” may have been kept on ice until September, all will be out in Euro theaters this year before Venice regulars taste their first Bellini.

This has proved a boon to midsummer events like the Taormina, Italy, and Locarno, Switzerland, fests, which were able to secure high-profile premieres, but has penalized Venice, hanging a cloud over its future as the preeminent fall launch pad for hot U.S. product in Europe.

The U.S. is represented in competition by two indie productions: artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel’s “Before Night Falls,” based on the autobiography of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas; and Robert Altman’s ensemble comedy-romance about a Dallas gynecologist, “Dr. T and the Women,” with star Richard Gere making his first Lido appearance.

Other stars expected to attend are Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, due in to promote Robert Zemeckis’ “What Lies Beneath”; Hugh Grant, who will be pushing Venice regular Woody Allen’s comedy “Small Time Crooks” (Allen himself is invariably a no-show); and the stars of Sally Potter’s “The Man Who Cried” — Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett, Christina Ricci and John Turturro — are all slated to be on hand.

Sharon Stone will help up the glamour quotient from day one, jetting in to present Clint Eastwood with the Golden Lion for career achievement prior to the opening-night screening of Warner’s youth-spurning astronaut yarn, “Space Cowboys.” Accompanying Eastwood will be co-stars Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner. Stone also will host an Aug. 31 Amfar dinner.

Barbera points out that with U.S. entries thinner on the ground this year, the fest’s function as a window for discoveries will be more in evidence than ever.

“Venice cannot limit itself to being simply a promotional vehicle for films that will have commercial exposure regardless of their inclusion in the festival,” he says. “Our selection process was driven primarily by a spirit of curiosity, risk and research, of examining what’s happening in contemporary cinema, the most significant emerging trends and the most promising talents for the future.”

New Asian talent

In line with the impact of Asian films at Cannes this year, Barbera again has assembled a strong corps of titles from the continent. But unlike last year, when established names like Zhang Yimou, Zhang Yuan and Abbas Kiarostami studded the competition and took top awards, the fest chief this year is betting on unheralded filmmakers to turn critics’ heads.

These include Hong Kong-based helmer Fruit Chan, with the improvised drama “Durian Durian”; mainland China’s Jia Zhang-ke, (“Xiao Wu”) with “Platform”; from India, Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s eccentric “The Wrestlers”; South Korean Kim Ki-duk’s quirky love story “The Isle”; and Jafar Panahi’s “The Circle,” which eschews the customarily metaphoric approach of Iranian cinema to take an unflinching look at the treatment of women.

“Asia continues to be an extremely fertile area for new ideas, new talents, new directions in language, content and visual form,” says Barbera. “The two Chinese films, in particular, are made by filmmakers who I think are major revelations and destined for important international careers.”

Italian films vie for top award

After the Italian exclusion from this year’s Cannes competition caused a national uproar in the media and industry circles, Barbera has chosen four locally produced features to vie for the Golden Lion, a turnaround from last year when only two minor-league entries made the cut.

“There’s no protectionist measure or nationalistic fervor at work here,” stresses Barbera. “These films are competing because they are solid, convincing, well written and well acted, and all of them have the qualities to be appreciated on the international market. We’re still a long way off saying the Italian film industry crisis has been resolved, but these films represent an encouraging sign of life.”

As always, the Venice selection process was marked by several bitter disappointments. New films by Jean-Luc Godard and Claire Denis will not be completed in time, while on the U.S. front, Barbera had been eyeing new pics by Robert Redford, Billy Bob Thornton, Sam Raimi and Philip Kaufman, among others, which also reportedly will not be ready.

Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” was off-limits due to New Line’s decision not to show the film in Europe prior to U.S. release, while Canal Plus chose Toronto over Venice to position Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Weight of Water” for a U.S. sale. Perhaps most disappointing to Barbera, he was unable to see Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” given DreamWorks’ decision to repeat its “American Beauty” strategy with a Toronto preem followed by U.S. roll-out.

“The profile for North America is definitely better at Toronto, but for international purposes, Venice is the best of the fall festivals,” says Sal Ladestro, Columbia TriStar Intl. distribution VP.

Venice has proved receptive to Col’s Asian productions, having awarded the Golden Lion last year to Zhang Yimou’s “Not One Less.” The division this year is back with Hong Kong fantasy-action wizard Tsui Hark’s “Time and Tide.”

“The reason we go to Venice is because it’s a director’s festival,” adds Ladestro. “Tsui Hark has a style that’s all his own and this is the perfect opportunity to showcase his film to international media.”

Outside of the competition, one of the most eagerly anticipated titles at Venice is the Dreams and Visions entry “The Princess and the Warrior,” a romantic thriller about a hospital worker and a thief that is hot German director Tom Tykwer’s follow-up to his smash “Run Lola Run.”

Martin Scorsese will pause from preparation in Rome on “Gangs of New York” to present the now-complete, four-hour version of his personal reflection on the Italian films that influenced him, “Il Dolce Cinema.”

Musicians from Spanish helmer Fernando Trueba’s documentary on Latin American jazz greats, “Calle 54,” and from Tony Gatlif’s passionate tale of Andalusian Gypsies, “Vengo,” will enliven the Lido with a concert on closing night.

With Venice’s patchy history under previous directors of attempting to create a market and then abandoning the idea as a failed experiment, Barbera has opted instead to continue with last year’s successful ploy of an Industry Office to function as a meeting point, additional screening facility and service center without the need to structure a formal market.

Indeed, with established marts like Cannes, American Film Market and Mifed increasingly barren of salable product, the fest chief sees less reason than ever for a Venice market.

“My impression is that traditional markets are becoming a thing of the past given changes in the way films are sold and distributed,” he says. “Most films are prefinanced and pre-sold, so why set up additional buyers’ screenings? The Industry Office serves as a location for commercial operators to meet in Venice and for now that seems sufficient. If in coming years we realize that the market is changing, then we’ll be flexible enough to change with it.”

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