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Venice Festival: Award Season Hopefuls From the U.S. Crowd the Lido’s Screens

Even before it kicks off on Aug. 30, the Venice Film Festival has bolstered its growing reputation as a launching pad for awards-season titles.

More so than in past editions, a deluge of English-language pics, including new works by Alexander Payne, George Clooney, Darren Aronofsky and Benicio Del Toro, will be world-premiering on the Lido during the fest’s first few days, before segueing to Telluride and Toronto. This year there is a greater number of movies that all three events just had to have, which is causing scheduling headaches and added stress for talent and publicists, plus more costs, of course. But apparently it’s worth it.

“We all wanted those particular seven, eight or 10 titles, which made things a little bit more complicated,” says Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera. “I’m only happy if a film I’ve chosen also goes to Telluride or Toronto.”

The point being: after launching multiple Oscar winners four years in a row — “Gravity,” “Birdman,” “Spotlight,” “La La Land” — Venice has become tougher to ignore. And it has gained more leverage to ensure that the Lido is the first stop on the trifecta.

The real scheduling conflicts came with Telluride, with which Venice overlaps directly. The tightly curated festival in a Colorado mountain resort has also gained more Oscar heft lately, especially since launching “Moonlight” last year. But Barbera makes no bones about the fact that, as he sees it, there is no comparison when it comes to promotional punch.

“In Telluride you have 10 critics who write for the trades; in Venice you have 3,000 journalists from around the world. That is the difference.”
“Venice seems to be a much better launch pad for anything critically driven,” agrees a veteran publicist.

But the Venice chief also denies that there is cutthroat competition with Telluride or that there is a war. “There is nothing of the sort,” he says. “There is a collaboration, as I believe there should be among festivals.”

Barbera also says he is “97% happy” with the Venice lineup and that they only missed out on “two or three” films they wanted. These include Richard Linklater’s upcoming New York Film Festival opener “Last Flag Flying,” and Christian Bale Western “Hostiles,” which is expected to debut at Telluride.

Amazon Studios, which opted for a New York launch on Linklater’s latest, will be on the Lido with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s docu on the global refugee crisis, “Human Flow,” in competition. It’s a perfect example of what Barbera calls the “extreme variety” of this year’s selection, which certainly transcends the U.S. awards season frenzy.

Competing for the Golden Lion alongside such Oscar bait titles as Payne’s “Downsizing” and Clooney’s “Suburbicon,” which both star Matt Damon, there is “a whole other range of different types of movies that are being made today around the world, which are not promoted and sustained and that need Venice for this,” Barbera notes.

These include Australian Aboriginal frontier drama “Sweet Country,” a sophomore work by Warwick Thornton, who in 2009 won the Cannes Camera d’Or with his debut “Samson and Delilah” but has since been under the radar; “Angels Wear White,” directed by China’s relatively unknown Vivian Qu, another second feature; and even a first work, French newcomer Xavier Legrand’s divorce drama “Jusqu’a la garde.”

In a spirit of renewal, 15 out of the 21 titles in this year’s Venice competition are by directors who have never competed for a Golden Lion before.
John Woo is back in Venice with out of competition title “Zhuibo” (Manhunt), a return to his crime thriller roots.

But the biggest novelty at Venice this year is a new competitive section dedicated to works made for virtual reality-viewing, the first-ever competition for VR works launched by a major film fest. It will be held in refurbished buildings on a tiny island a stone’s throw from the Lido that was a leper colony in the 15th century and has never before been open to the public.

Heading the VR jury will be U.S. director John Landis, who will also be on hand to present a reworked 3D version of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video, which he shot. Venice will pay tribute to the groundbreaking video with a special event also featuring backstage documentary “The Making of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller,’” by Jerry Kramer. Both are financed by the Jackson estate to celebrate the album’s 35th anniversary.

Barbera says that the gala evening will include a party.

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