The Rome Film Festival’s independently run Alice in the City sidebar, which is dedicated to films for children and youth, has scored several coups recently, including the European premiere of Disney’s “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” attended by stars Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer. The sidebar also managed to get Casey Affleck to fly over for the Italian launch of his directorial debut, “Light of My Life.”

Variety spoke to co-founder and artistic director Fabia Bettini about how the event has managed to gain prominence on the international children’s festival circuit and maintain a distinctive identity.

At the recent MIA market in Rome, there was lots of talk about Alice making a quantum leap this year. How did you score the “Maleficent” premiere?

Alice’s strength has always been, paradoxically, not to chase after stars. When we see a film we fall in love with it, regardless of its star power. I adore “Maleficent 2.” In speaking to Disney months ago, we saw that we could have a premiere close to our festival dates. So…we gambled on it and we got lucky.

Initially, it was just meant to be Michelle Pfeiffer [attending]. But then Angelina Jolie decided to come, which obviously became a game changer, and so it became the European premiere, ahead of London. This is because Disney has been aware of what we’ve been doing for the past 17 years…Maybe “Maleficent” didn’t need us to help it compete with “Joker,” though we are happy that it’s now ahead of “Joker” [at the Italian box office]. But maybe they did benefit from us in terms of our know-how in turning out a really appealing premiere.

It looks like something similar is now happening with Casey Affleck, who is coming for “Light of My Life,” in which a father fights to protect his daughter. 

Affleck won’t be able to actually attend the festival screening, which is the Italian premiere. But we are very passionate about this film, and we still got him to come to Rome this weekend. He will be holding an Alice masterclass with the kids [tied to the film’s release]. The point is that we work closely with distributors and the market and we want to support film releases. This is key to our credibility and our relationship with the market.

Speaking of market, what is the connection between Alice and MIA? 

Our competition has to be either European or international premieres precisely because there has to be a link with MIA. We offer market screenings at MIA. This is very important for us. Similarly, it’s very important for us to have a competition [for first works] because we have to be a platform for young talents.

How is Alice different from the Rome Film Festival?

We’ve been doing Alice in the City for 17 years. It was born before the Rome fest. When the Rome fest started [15 years ago] we became one of its sections, because we are funded by the same entities. Over the years, while Rome has had its ups and downs and changed managements, we’ve been a stable event that all the U.S. companies have liaised with. We’ve built long-term relationships.

We also have a different identity. Unlike Rome, we have a competition, we seek premieres and we support young talents. We are similar to Berlin’s Generation section, which has been a big inspiration to us. Maryanne Redpath [head of Berlin’s Generation section] taught me a lot, besides inviting me to be a juror. She really helped Alice enter the international children’s films arena. But of course we did not just replicate Berlin.