Finding footing amid fest fever

Highly competitive circuit poses new challenges for Lido event

ROME — What do “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Memento,” “Beau Travail,” “Being John Malkovich” and “Pollock” have in common? All five pics had their world premieres at recent editions of the Venice Intl. Film Festival. But all five were largely overlooked, going on to make their critical and commercial marks much later.

The fundamental reason, according to Venice chief Alberto Barbera, whose third stint at the helm of the world’s oldest film festival comes Aug. 29-Sept. 8, is simple: competition fever. If they don’t have heavyweight directors or A-list stars to guarantee media attention, even the most original films screening outside of official competition can struggle to be noticed.

The phenomenon is by no means exclusive to Venice. Take “The Full Monty.” While press fawned at Sundance in 1997 over American indies, the global Brit hit came and went in the World Cinema sidebar without even registering a blip on the radar.

“Aside from the majority of U.S. studio films, everyone wants to be in competition now,” Barbera tells Variety. “Directors, producers and distributors don’t want to hear about putting their films in sidebar sections because they fear they’ll come and go unnoticed. In a certain sense, that fear is justified given the commercial concerns and promotional benefits of premiering at a festival.”

In view of this, Barbera and his programming team have introduced a major innovation to the 58th Venice fest that they hope will help spread the attention of press and pundits more evenly across the entire lineup.

In a radical redefinition of standard fest structure, Venice’s traditional competition has been coupled with a second competition expanded from the Cinema of the Present section, where most of the under-appreciated titles mentioned above made their bows.

But while broad distinctions can be made to separate the two lineups — major names and classical filmmaking styles in the traditional competition; riskier, cutting-edge fare, usually by younger, lesser-known filmmakers in the offshoot — Barbera insists that the dividing lines have been deliberately blurred.

Underlining this is the presence of German veteran Werner Herzog in the new Cinema of the Present competish while virtually unknown Iranian helmer Babak Payami and Ulrich Seidl, an Austrian documaker directing his first narrative feature, figure in the main lineup.

“We’ve deliberately shuffled the deck in order to avoid creating a dual competition structure that’s too schematic,” says Barbera. “I think a rigid division between established auteurs and newcomers would have been counterproductive for everyone.

“Instead, our aim is to break down barriers and oblige audiences to rethink their critical values and establish their own distinctions between the two competitions,” he adds. “We’ve tried to go against expectations, to play around with the two competitions and the differences between them and create an element of surprise and curiosity.”

What Barbera has stressed repeatedly in outlining the new structure is his wish to avoid the stigma of A- and B-grade competitions. He underlines that each section is of equal importance, designed to be considered as integrated, complementary facets of the same program in which one group enhances the other.

Industry response, according to the fest chief, has been generally favorable though many insiders are waiting to see how the new setup functions after kickoff.

“I think Alberto is doing a good job of focusing the profile of Venice itself,” says David Linde, president of Good Machine Intl., which brings Alfonso Cuaron’s “And Your Mother Too” to the Venezia 58 competition.

“The differences between the two competitions may seem quite subtle and subjective, but I think there’s been a lot of attention to positioning each film within the program so that it receives its appropriate attention. That factor, plus eligibility for prizes is very important for a film’s distribution, especially for young filmmakers. It gives everyone the opportunity to stand up and be seen.”

However, other fest pundits have voiced skepticism. One leading Italian critic and Venice veteran slammed the split, calling it a sign that the fest is bowing to producers’ demands, with the multiplication of awards detracting from the prestige of traditional top honor, the Golden Lion.

Two separate juries will preside over each competition, with the winner of the traditional lineup receiving the Golden Lion and the Cinema of the Present honoree landing the Lion of the Year. Adding to the mix, a third jury will award the Lion of the Future — Venice’s equivalent of the Cannes Camera d’Or — to the best debut feature from the entire program.

“The intention of giving more space and more attention to all films is undoubtedly a noble one,” says Giampaolo Letta, VP of leading Italian distrib Medusa, which has Clare Peploe’s period piece “The Triumph of Love” in the main competition plus opening-night film Milcho Manchevski’s Balkan Western “Dust” and Woody Allen’s “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” out of competition.

“But it’s inevitable that one competition will dominate the other, creating a sense of resentment,” he adds. “If festivals traditionally have just one competition with one leading award it’s for a reason. An edition of Cannes or Venice or Berlin tends to be remembered by the film that took the Lion, the Palme or the Bear that year. This proliferation of separate awards seems far too confusing.”

Barbera seems unfazed by criticism and admits that the new Venice structure is an experimental work in progress, designed to be modified and improved according to the inaugural run’s results.

“Certainly, I can accept that there may be the need to make further changes based on this year’s outcome,” concedes the fest director. “What I can’t accept is the prejudicial refusal of the idea that a festival can have two equally ranked competitions, each with its own top award. This seems to be an attitude of narrow-mindedness toward innovation, regarding the traditional festival model as untouchable.

“Things change, just as cinema is changing,” adds Barbera. “World cinema today is so diversified, divided and fragmented that a festival in some way must try to reflect that fragmentation and provide visibility for everyone. If we manage this year to get critics talking about even just a handful of films from outside the traditional competition, then it will represent a step in the right direction.”

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