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Venice’s Alberto Barbera on Gender Parity, Netflix, Polanski and Hollywood Upheaval

Immediately after unveiling the Venice Film Festival lineup Thursday, artistic chief Alberto Barbera found himself contending with hot-potato issues, including the continued poor representation of female directors in the competition lineup (just two of 21), his embrace of Netflix, and the competition slot given to Roman Polanski, despite the director’s 1977 conviction for statutory rape.

Barbera addressed those and other issues in an interview with Variety. 

The streamers have a pretty strong presence in Venice, especially Netflix with three titles [“The Laundromat,” “Marriage Story,” “The King”]. This has already prompted European exhibitors to launch an angry appeal for these titles to play in movie theaters. What’s your response?

It’s not my job to reply to them. I’m not here to tell Netflix or exhibitors what they should do. I have a personal opinion about it that, as festival director, I won’t reveal.

I get movies submitted to me by producers. Netflix is a producer; they are part of the MPAA. They are a producer like Fox, Warners, etc. I pick their movies on the basis of their quality. That’s it.

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Regarding gender parity this year, how does this edition compare with last year?

This year across all sections, excluding Venice Classics, we’ve got 24% women directors. Last year it was 20%. We received 1,860 submissions this year. Of these submissions, women directors accounted for less than 24%…What I’m never going to do is take a movie directed by a woman just to raise the proportion…

The other significant number this year is that the percentage of shorts we selected directed by women is 50% and submissions of shorts by women accounted for 43%. That means something is changing in the new generations. But in industrial movies, we can’t expect this type of change immediately. It’s going to take time. In the more than 180 submissions we got for the VR competition, women account for 68%. That’s more proof that something is changing.

Was it a difficult decision for you to take Polanski’s “An Officer and a Spy”?

This is a great movie. We’re talking the same level as “The Pianist”….And I have no doubt it will be recognized as such. The only thing you can do is distinguish between the man and the artist. Polanski is a great artist, one of the last great European auteurs. I didn’t hesitate for a second in taking it….

I don’t want to get into the whole issue. When you go see a painting by Caravaggio, you are seeing a work by an assassin who, after killing a man, had to escape to Palermo. It’s ridiculous. If you can’t make a distinction between the culpability of a person and that person’s value as an artist, you aren’t going to get anywhere.

Polanski’s problems with L.A. County and his conscience are his personal problems, aside from the fact that I think that, after 40 years of tribulations, he’s paid for what he did. But [for me] as a festival director, what counts is that he made a great movie.

A bit less Hollywood in Venice this year. Why?

There is a strange situation this year with American cinema due to what’s happening in the industry. There’s an earthquake undermining the U.S. film industry as we know it: Disney buying Fox and dismantling it, so that in a while people won’t even remember it existed; Paramount just distributing movies made by other outfits….Fortunately, Warner Bros. is holding up. Disney has a become such a colossus that it’s even alarming due to its size and its ability to shape the future.

There is also some uncertainty about Sony. Lionsgate…is now on the verge of a sale. The landscape is changing so rapidly that it’s normal for this to impact product [output]. There were definitely less quality [U.S.] titles on offer this year, even though we have no shortage of good movies. 

Didn’t Toronto also get more aggressive this year?

Yes. They are trying to get more world premieres in all their sections. I told them I can understand trying to get the world premiere of an American movie. That’s part of competition. But if you ask for the world premiere in the Platform or Discovery sections for a small Filipino or Malaysian film, tell me: Who’s going to benefit from that? It’s ridiculous. That said, I don’t want to talk about the movies that I don’t have because each case is different. 

You pointed out at the press conference that it’s rare for Warner Bros. to be in competition, as they are this year with “Joker.”

Yes, as usual they said they wanted to be in a more protected situation [as with “A Star Is Born” last year, which launched out of competition]. But then [director] Todd Phillips said: “I don’t care if I run the risk of not winning. Why shouldn’t I go in competition when I know what we’ve I’ve got on our hands?”

I have to say, Warners was convinced pretty rapidly, because it’s a really surprising film. It’s the most surprising film we’ve got this year…This one’s going straight to the Oscars even though it’s gritty, dark, violent. It has amazing ambition and scope.

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