Take an 8,000-seat ancient Greek theater in the shadow of Sicily’s active Mt. Etna volcano, add genre movies and Web series that tap into primal emotions, mix in stars who connect with auds through live talks about their careers, and you have the innovative recipe for the re-conceived Taormina Film Fest, opening with Warner Bros.’ Man of Steel making its continental European bow.

Film festivals historically have been about discovering fresh storytelling and new visual languages. But according to Taormina artistic topper Mario Sesti, in these digital days a fest dedicated to mainstream movies is just as relevant.

“We are tapping into the primal forces that made film the medium with the greatest power for a rapid planetary expansion in any latitude or language,” he says, “and we are trying to gauge what’s left of that power today.”

Unspooling pics will include Danny Boyle’s hallucinatory gender-bender Trance, from Fox; Italo helmer Marco Risi’s Rome-set murder mystery Cha Cha Cha; Argentinian wife-swap comedy Dos mas dos by Diego Kaplan; body-modification horror pic American Mary by Canada’s directorial twins Jen and Sylvia Soska; and gory chiller The Collection, by U.S. horrormeister Marcus Dunstan.

Underscoring Taormina’s range of genres, these films will screen alongside British tearjerker Song for Marion by Paul Andrew Williams and starring Vanessa Redgrave, plus Italo Web skein Marduk’s, which is described as a combination of caustic cynicism and South Park-esque antics.

As a fest concept it’s a sort of antithesis to Cannes or Venice.

Though barriers between art and mainstream cinema are disintegrating at many top-tier fests, Taormina is trying to take the lead as a summer bastion for movies to which “you react with your gut; not with your head,” as Sesti puts it.

And while the U.S. studios are increasingly scrapping fest launches from their promotional strategies, this year they have decided to support the Sicilian shindig, thanks to its fortuitous timing and unique setting.

“It used to be that launching from a festival was the starting point of our marketing strategies because you could obtain global media impact from a single place,” says Warner Bros. Italy general director Nicola Maccanico. “But with new media that’s no longer necessary.”

Maccanico cites various Harry Potter preems in London, which got exposure all over the world, partly because journos from various countries attended, but also simply because of what he calls the new media “echo effect.”

Yet, with good timing and location, fests “can still be important” for the majors, he notes. Taormina’s June dates, combined with its unique backdrop, prompted Warners to make it a prime stop on the promotional tour for Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, with Henry Cavill and co-stars Russell Crowe and Amy Adams all in tow.
“Movies are the most available software in the world today, whether they are viewed legally or illegally,” Sesti says. “But what still is not easily available in this new media age is the live presence of talent.”

So instead of restricting talent access to jaded journos, Taormina has opened it up to auds through its onstage Tao Class master classes, allowing for an indirect dialogue with industry stars — such as Meg Ryan, who is also being feted.

On the industry side, Taormina is playing a key part in Italy’s ongoing bridge-building with the Russian film industry, with a Russian sidebar of titles selected by Yelena Romanova, head of Russia’s Open World Fund; a confab on Italy’s tax breaks; and a mini-retro celebrating prominent Russian multihyphenate Renata Litvinova, whose most recent directorial effort is fantasy Rita’s Last Fairy Tale, in which she also stars.