Sign of the times: stars on tight leash

Celebs put to work plugging pix

Boatloads of top Hollywood talent are set to hop ashore at this year’s Venice Intl. Film Festival — Antonio Banderas, Emma Thompson, Nicole Kidman, Anthony Hopkins, George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn and Catherine Zeta-Jones among them.

But their visits will be brief, hectic and to most festgoers, utterly invisible, testifying to a recent sea change in how stars are promoted and how they participate here.

Thanks to Hollywood’s higher film promotion costs, tighter budgets and more pressured work schedules, stars no longer arrive in Venice to preen and play, as they did only a decade or two ago.

These days, they come to work.

Whisked into town for one or two days on interview-packed junkets, they dash out again on their private jets, as if the fest were merely a pit stop on a global promotional racetrack.

“We used to have so much fun with the stars in the old days, taking excursions to all the islands and strolling along the canals,” says Bob Hawkins, a retired journalist for Variety and the New York Times.

Now, he says, stars are holed up and hidden away in posh hotels like the Cipriani, which is isolated from the festival on a fairly remote island, and are seen only at press conferences, public screenings and exclusive dinners at a palazzo, or perhaps the popular Harry’s Bar.

“When Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman came to promote ‘Eyes Wide Shut,’ they were chased down the Grand Canal by boatloads of photographers,” says Chris Paton, a fest veteran who jointly heads up Premier PR in London. “It was a great scene, but then they vanished onto a private island and later to a private dinner. Venice just isn’t the big party venue that Cannes is.”

Festgoers wanting to feast their starry eyes might as well have kept themwide shut.

The handling of celebs is expensive and logistically challenging in lagoon-bound Venice.

“The biggest headache for me is trying to persuade stars that they don’t want to stay at the Cipriani,” explains Maxine Leonard, exec VP of marketing and publicity at Myriad Pictures. “It costs a fortune, it’s in an incredibly inconvenient location and takes 45 minutes by boat to get to and from the Lido.” As of early August, some of the biggest hassles facing star handlers and party planners involved the notoriously disorganized fest itself.

“The festival has been so slack in setting up screening dates for the films,” adds Leonard. “It’s a logistical nightmare.”

One of the flights Myriad and Arenas Entertainment will be booking is for Banderas, star of their co-production and festival entry “Imagining Argentina.”

Actor’s arrival by private jet is planned for Sept. 1. But the thesp is starring in “Nine” on Broadway, so the only way he can participate in the fest is to fly out on a Sunday night to work the Lido on Monday, his “dark day” in the theater — which will likely make him miss his Tuesday night show.

The schedule is the subject of “sensitive negotiations.”

During his pit stop on the lagoon, Banderas, co-star Emma Thompson and director Christopher Hampton will attend an after-screening party based on the theme Tango Argentino, featuring dancing and dinner for 200 guests.

That’s more ambitious than most Venetian parties, but still a far cry from the grand balls and flashy fetes of yesteryear.

Lakeshore Entertainment and RAI’s event for “The Human Stain” will be a more traditional low-key palazzo dinner after a screening.

Lakeshore VP of worldwide marketing Rob Burke confirms that Kidman, Anthony Hopkins, Gary Sinise and director Robert Benton will attend, but declined to confirm Venice buzz that Hopkins and Kidman will be winging in on their private jets.

One of the classiest party spots during the fest has always been Count Giovanni Volpi’s improvised luncheons, held in his villa Ca’ Leone on the Giudecca isle. Guests can bump porcelain plates with more celebrities per square foot than any hot spot in Europe.

At one luncheon, Volpi favorites Jack Nicholson, Sherry Lansing and husband William Friedkin mingled in the gardens with Giorgio Armani and Lee Radziwill. Finishing their pesto linguini nearby were Tom Hanks, Michael Douglas, David Lynch and Viacom’s Jonathan Dolgen.

But Volpi didn’t throw his party last year, and this year he says he may not either, due to his well-known displeasure with fest brass.

“I still have to call up the fest people so they can move a press conference (so the stars can attend the party),” says the count, whose father, Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, founded the fest 60 years ago. “Why should I lift a finger or ask them for what they call a favor when in fact it helps them? Why should I help people I don’t click with?”

In the recent past, the most elusive ticket and lavish Venetian bash has been the American Foundation for AIDS Research’s Cinema Against AIDS party, a 10-year staple of Cannes that in 2000 added Venice to its list of venues. The event raised $1.7 million over its past three years.

“In terms of the stars, we’ve been very lucky,” says AmFAR director of special events Andy Boose. “We’ve had great hosts who actually cater to us by donating to us and coming toVenice.”

For 2000 and 2001, the hosts for the AmFAR party were Sharon Stone and Liz Taylor, respectively. Each held forth at a spectacular 10th-century Benedictine monastery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore.

Among the Tintorettos and hidden gardens both years were Robert Altman, Milos Foreman, Frank Gehry, Richard Gere, Nicole Kidman, Harvey Weinstein and Charlize Theron.Last year, the party took over a huge 16th-century industrial space in the Arsenale, which could hardly contain the crowd’s enthusiasm when headliner Shirley Bassey sang “Goldfinger.” The auction netted a whopping $19,000 for two tickets to Vanity Fair’s Oscar party.

Still, don’t look for an AmFAR bash this summer — the next gala will be in 2004.

“With all the events on our schedule, we decided we’d have more impact by throwing the event every other year,” says Boose.