The scheduling crunch of three prominent film festivals — Venice, Toronto, Telluride — in the first half of September has traditionally led to battles for big-name movies. But could a new spirit of cooperation, or at least a truce, be in the offing? Alberto Barbera, artistic director of the Venice Film Festival, which begins Aug. 31, hopes so. Three years ago, Barbera was caught in the crossfire of an escalating conflict between Toronto and Telluride, and risked being edged out altogether by their no-holds-barred fight for world premieres of American films.
Since then, the climate has cooled, and Venice appears safe in its position as an awards-season springboard; in fact, the last two Oscar best-picture winners — “Birdman” and “Spotlight” — launched from the Lido.
After Venice wraps Sept. 10, Barbera hopes to sit down with Piers Handling, CEO of the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, to make a plea for continued cooperation. “Christ, let’s stop competing uselessly. It just complicates our existence!” Barbera says. “Let’s make an agreement to exchange information, to tell each other what the movies are [that we both want]. If we can work together on promoting certain titles, it’s best for both of us.”
Whether Handling will agree is unclear; a TIFF rep had no comment. But unprecedented promotional cooperation between Venice and Toronto is already evident. Sony Pictures this year placed Antoine Fuqua’s remake of the classic Western “The Magnificent Seven” as the opener in Toronto and the closer in Venice — a feat that has never before been accomplished.
Barbera says he was initially “a bit perplexed” by the proposal from Sony publicity strategist Susan Van Der Werff. “But then I thought that Sony absolutely wanted to do Toronto, for obvious American-market reasons, and I said, ‘Why not, if you guarantee that you will bring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt to Venice?’ It’s good for the movie, it’s good for us, and it serves the purpose of alleviating tensions with Toronto.”
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Both Van Der Werff and Sony executive VP of marketing, Sal Ladestro, who negotiated with Barbera over another hotly anticipated release, Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi pic “Arrival” — which will world-premiere in Venice and then segue to Toronto — declined to comment, suggesting that the rivalry remains a sensitive issue.
But tensions aren’t nearly as high as they were in 2013, when Telluride suddenly stepped up the number of its “sneak peek” world premieres, including eventual Oscar winner “12 Years a Slave.” Toronto’s organizers hit back by telling distributors they would accept only world premieres for the first four days of their festival. (A rep for Telluride had no comment.)
Barbera says he has since spoken to Telluride Film Festival co-founder Tom Luddy about bringing the temperature down, and Toronto has softened its world-premieres-only rule for its opening four days.
“There’s naturally some competition, but it should never be a kind of scorched-earth competition where anyone’s looking to destroy another festival. That’s not good for any of us,” Toronto artistic director Cameron Bailey told Variety recently.
For Lionsgate Motion Picture Group co-chair Patrick Wachsberger, who is launching the musical “La La Land” from Venice’s opening-day slot, the three festivals are different animals. Telluride is shorter, screens fewer films, and is “about filmmakers more than talents,” he says. Toronto has an edge over Venice with the North American market because it attracts more U.S. reviewers, but Venice is more selective and “can give a film greater cachet.”
Choosing which of the September festivals is the place to premiere an awards-worthy picture “truly depends on the movie,” Wachsberger says, adding that, in an ideal world, a film would get a “one, two, three: Venice, Telluride, Toronto” launch.
That’s unrealistic. But a spirit of greater cooperation between the three festivals may not be.