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Venice Film Festival’s Important Role in Awards Race

Fest confers a touch of class to any hopeful in its lineup

The Venice Film Festival doesn’t have a huge role in awards season, but it’s an important one.

Telluride and Toronto are very kudos-centric, each offering a glut of films that are potential contenders. Venice offers only a handful, but it confers a touch of class to any hopeful in its lineup.

A few years ago, “Black Swan” opened the Venice Fest. It was well received, and went on to garner a bunch of awards attention, including a best-actress Oscar for Natalie Portman. The Venice berth gave the film a leg-up in its global marketing — and its kudos push. Fox Searchlight always believed in the film, but knew it did not have an easy sell with a psychological thriller set in the world of ballet. So the Venice spot sent the message that this is a film to be taken seriously. “The Hurt Locker” also made its debut at Venice, and kept building momentum from there.

Alfonso Cuaron and Stephen Frears don’t exactly need to establish credibility. But the Venice slots this year convey that WB’s “Gravity” is more than just a 3d outer-space venture for Cuaron (in photo above with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney). And the presence of Weinstein Co.’s “Philomena” invites comparisons with Frears’ “The Queen,” which started its successful global blitz when it debuted here several years ago.

Venice has four distinct advantages: Its classy status; its boutique berth for films (as one wag said, “Would you rather have your film premiere amid 50 others, as in Venice, or amid 300 others?”); its timing (the fest opened Aug. 28, and God knows, people in Hollywood always like to be first); and its star-friendly atmosphere.

Every festival likes premieres and stars, but Venice is arguably the most photogenic of all festivals, as stars are seen arriving in boats or waving on the red carpet. This year, Venice has hosted the casts of “Gravity” and “Philomena,” along with Daniel Radcliffe, James Franco, Nicolas Cage, Mia Wasikowska and plenty of others.

All of these factors feed into awards campaigns and, as a bonus, actors and filmmakers can be here without appearing to be campaigning. (For some reason, many balk at that concept.) “Venice is not about building awards buzz,” said one film publicist on Monday. “It’s about breaking international barriers.”

To break international barriers, Venice offers films from around the world, with a screening schedule that’s workable. While there is a market and hoopla, the emphasis always seems to be on watching films. Unlike most other world fests, this one provides moments of breathing time between screenings and meetings. Most of the fest action takes place on the Lido, a long and narrow island with a Newport Beach/Hamptons vibe. But if festgoers want to unwind for a couple of hours, they can take a 20-minute boat ride to “downtown Venice,” as locals call the familiar canal-gondola-palazzo part of the region.

Venice is generally conceded to be the world’s first international film fest, begun in 1932. And current fest director Alberto Barbera keeps up the tradition by showcasing global films. That includes a healthy portion of English-language works, including  Ti West’s “The Sacrament”; David Gordon Green’s “Joe”; John Curran’s “Tracks”; Kelly Reichardt’s “Night Moves”; Paul Schrader’s “The Canyons”; Franco’s “Child of God”; Greg McLean’s “Wolf Creek 2”; Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto”; and Steven Knight’s “Locke.”

Some of these may end up awards contenders this year or next. Most won’t. But these filmmakers, along with many others from around the globe, could be the big winners somewhere down the road.

This year’s Venice has already made a kudos contribution, thanks to “Gravity,” “Philomena,” “Kill Your Darlings” and others. And the lineup of the 70th festival may include a lot of names who this year are planting seeds for future wins. They could be remembered as part of the classy 2013 class.

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