Venice fest vexed as Yanks yank pic

USA Films saves 'Contenders' for Web, Sundance

ROME — While Alberto Barbera repeatedly has stated that the short supply of U.S. features in the 57th Venice Intl. Film Festival lineup is due in no way to anti-Hollywood sentiment, the sudden withdrawal of one key Yank title has the normally mild-mannered fest director declaring war.

Following its acquisition of U.S. rights to “Series 7: The Contenders,” USA Films has opted to pull the dark satirical drama from Venice, where it was scheduled to have its international premiere Sept. 1, and from the Toronto fest, where its yet-to-be-announced North American bow was slated for Sept. 9.

“A decision of this type made only two weeks before the start of the festival is entirely unprofessional, unacceptable and unethical,” fumed Barbera. “After having accepted our invitation and after our announcement of the program, the producers are obliged to honor their commitment according to rules of the international producers association.”

USA Films declined comment Wednesday. But the distrib is understood to be reluctant to screen the pic so far in advance of its February 2001 release, preferring instead to build awareness of the title via a Web campaign and to premiere at Sundance.

The move is surprising given the Venice fest’s promotion of the title from its original slot in the Cinema of the Present sidebar to a more prestigious position in the Dreams and Visions midnight lineup. The forfeit comes as a blow to a lineup already light on U.S. entries.

Venice also had accommodated the producers’ wish to separate the film from its skedded Toronto screening, bringing the Lido showing forward in order to allow key cast and crew to attend both events.

“I have no intention of accepting their justification and am determined to ensure this doesn’t establish a precedent,” Barbera told Daily Variety. “At this point, the film is out of the lineup, but I want to make it clear that the terms of a professional agreement have been broken here in a completely discourteous and amateurish way.”

USA’s decision is especially surprising given the distrib’s stellar launch of two titles last year at Venice, both well ahead of their domestic debuts.

Premiered out of competition, “Being John Malkovich” became the hot buzz title of the fest, while “Topsy-Turvy” took home the best actor award for Jim Broadbent, a prize then used in USA’s marketing campaign.

The first feature from writer-director Dan Minahan, “The Contenders” parodies TV reality shows like “Big Brother” and “Survivor” via a top-rated series in which six contestants from a single town are armed and assigned a cameraman as they battle each other to death for the top cash prize. It stars Brooke Smith, Glenn Fitzgerald and Marylouise Burke.

Pic was produced by Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente, Christine Vachon and Katie Roumel, who had committed to the Venice bow at an early stage, prior to USA Films coming on board. The film reportedly was one of the first titles accepted by the Italian event.

In advance discussions about this year’s fest selections, Venice topper Barbera has been a vocal supporter of “The Contenders.” He repeatedly singled out the title as potentially one of the event’s breakout critical discoveries, like last year’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” which Vachon also produced. Vachon was on location and unavailable for comment.

Barbera now is anxiously seeking a replacement, preferably from the U.S., to fill the vacated Dreams and Visions berth.

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