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‘First Man,’ ‘Star Is Born’ Kick Off Awards Season Race at Venice Festival

With this year’s lineup, the Venice Intl. Film Festival has taken a quantum leap toward becoming a cinematic juggernaut, prevailing over Toronto and Telluride and giving Cannes cause for concern.

Vis-a-vis Cannes, the clincher this year has been Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera’s embrace of streaming platforms — especially Netflix, which has six titles in the official selection. But what’s really allowed the Lido to fully leverage its enviable start-of-September slot on the fall festival calendar is Barbera’s ability to forge relationships with U.S. film executives — be they from the streamers, the majors or indies — as well as with top execs and directors who make quality pics all over the rest of the planet.

Since the first edition of Barbera’s reign in 2012, almost while no one was looking, Venice has become the festival that really kicks off the U.S. awards season, having presciently programmed a string of titles that went on to garner multiple nominations and awards, such as best picture Oscar winners “Birdman,” “Spotlight” and “The Shape of Water,” not all of which were originally thought of as major awards contenders.

“Many of the films that Alberto has championed have gone on to enjoy success during awards season,” says AGC Studios chief Stuart Ford, who in 2016 launched “Hacksaw Ridge,” which garnered six Oscar noms including best pic, and two wins, from Venice.

“I’ve always felt that Alberto is like a partner who cares about each film, and that translates to the great atmosphere at the festival.”

“We’ve always thought Venice is a very important international launching pad for a certain type of film: the quality film with wide audience potential,” says Warner Bros. Italy topper Barbara Salabè, who cites the Lido launches of “Gravity” and this year of the “A Star Is Born” remake directed by and starring Bradley Cooper alongside Lady Gaga. She underlines that Barbera has given the festival great luster. But for Venice it’s not just “the get” of a hot title or such a megastar as Lady Gaga, certain to spark a paparazzi frenzy.

“The extraordinary thing about ‘A Star Is Born’ is that you discover Lady Gaga as an actress … completely without makeup,” Salabè says. “It has a different intensity than a commercial movie.”

Furthermore, because Venice is smaller than Cannes or Toronto — Barbera slimmed it down — films really can have their moment there and are less likely to get lost.

Incidentally, the last time Warner Bros. launched a movie from Cannes was in 2013 with Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby.” This is simply because “movies [awards hopefuls] are usually not ready for Cannes,” says Salabè.

Key to Venice’s ability to lure the cream of the American crop is the behind-the-scenes work of its New York-based U.S. programmer Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, a journalist and author of monographs on directors such as Robert Altman, Clint Eastwood and William Friedkin. She is a former Turin Film Festival co-topper, who has forged longstanding relationships with U.S. auteurs including Joel and Ethan Coen, Alfonso Cuaron, as well as indie and studio executives.

The Coen brothers will be back in Venice this year with their Western “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” while Cuaron revisits with “Roma,” his return to Spanish-language filmmaking. Both titles are from Netflix, which was famously shutout from Cannes this year because of a dispute over their films’ lack of theatrical release in France.

The results of Venice’s relationship-building efforts are on full display. Presiding over this edition’s jury is Guillermo del Toro, who won last year’s Golden Lion with “The Shape of Water,” en route to Oscar glory. Damien Chazelle is back with festival opener “First Man,” following his multiple-Oscar winner “La La Land,” which launched from the Lido.

Italy’s Luca Guadagnino returns with his remake, of sorts, of suspense classic “Suspiria,” an Amazon original.
“Historically, Venice is always regarded as a bit of a risk,” says veteran British publicist Charles McDonald. “But if a movie goes from Venice to Toronto armed with glowing reviews, then you are in fantastic shape.”

McDonald notes that “the only false step in this day and age” in the Venice lineup “is the lack of women.” The competition and Horizons sections each feature only one film directed by a woman and they account for just roughly 20% of the official selection. By contrast, roughly a third of the films at Toronto will be from female directors.

The fest has pledged to address the gender parity issue, though it remains to be seen how. Coming to terms with this problem seems crucial at a time when finally, as Salabè puts it, “Venice is now recognized as a place run by someone who can pick out the movies.”

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