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Davids Chief Piera Detassis on Revamping Italy’s Top Film Awards

Piera Detassis recently became the first woman to head the David di Donatello Awards, Italy’s equivalent of the Oscars. Since then she’s been busy overhauling the inner workings of the prizes that will be awarded on Wednesday. Detassis, also the editor of Italian film publication Ciak, spoke exclusively to Variety about the challenges she’s faced in getting “rid of some cobwebs” and improving the gender balance among voters. (The following are excerpts from the conversation.)

Rethinking the Davids radically after decades must have been a big task on several fronts. Can you talk to me about the main changes?
Change was necessary; it was inevitable. The call for it came from the entire Italian film industry. People forget that [just like the Oscars] behind the Davids there is the Italian Film Academy, comprising all industry organizations, from actors and directors to sound men. They all had demands that we tried to accommodate, when they made sense. The most urgent one concerned the makeup of the jury, and therefore of the Academy itself.

Why was changing the criteria for membership so crucial?
Well, I don’t want be too disparaging about the past. But, as is always the case in Italy, 30 years of [many different] governments had caused a stratification of names, friendships, etc. And on top of all that, it was a tired jury that had lost interest. Many members didn’t even bother to vote. Also, lots of jurors didn’t even belong to the industry or weren’t actively working in film anymore. Let me give you one example: the membership list did not include any Italian festival directors besides [Venice chief] Alberto Barbera. It did not include the festival directors that Italy is now exporting internationally like [Berlin co-chief] Carlo Chatrian and Paolo Moretti [who heads Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight]… or Gianluca Farinelli, chief of the Bologna Film Archives, who are world leaders in film restoration. It did not include some of the key people in the Italian industry today.

The members also didn’t include many women, right?
Right. So the idea was also to slim down the Academy members and at the same time increase the number of women. But this isn’t something you can do with members who joined the Academy as David nominees or prizewinners [historically dominated by males]. You can’t remove any of those guys. So we tried to create more balance within a separate jury called Culture and Society.

Did kicking people out ruffle feathers?
The cuts in this jury were very controversial. There was plenty of pushback… At one point, after making the initial cuts, we realized that this separate group still included a clutch of film people (directors, editors, etc.) who had never been nominated or won any Davids. So we made the tough decision of removing them all. It was very tough. Some people — even though they no longer even voted — when they got removed from the jury, suddenly being on it became really important to them.

Did more members cast their votes this time?
We had a roughly 83% “turnout” in the second round. That’s pretty good, though I would have liked to reach 90%-100%. It’s hard for me to make a comparison with the past, but I think compared with last year it’s a roughly 13% increase.

Aside from the numbers, I think there is more awareness of what people are actually voting for. We’ve been able to achieve two goals: to give the jury a more specific shape, and also instill a new “Davids pride.” People started posting their letter of admission into the Academy on social media, and this created new buzz. We got rid of some cobwebs, lowered the median age of voters, and made it more of a social media thing.

Did new criteria for Italian Film Academy membership contribute to two women directors, Alice Rohrwacher and Valeria Golino, being nominated in both the best picture and best director categories, respectively with “Happy as Lazzaro” and “Euphoria”?
There are various factors at play here. There is undoubtedly a new sensitivity. We had a good year because both these movies made an international splash in Cannes. They are both important directors and I think this generated an outpouring of esteem from their colleagues. I’m sure that having more women voters favored this, but I don’t think it’s just this.

Another big change is the new David for best local blockbuster.
Well, I wanted to do something even bolder; introduce a prize for TV series. But I immediately got shot down by the board on that. This new prize stems from the fact that David voters tend to vote for auteurs, and we felt it’s unfair that a movie that makes an impact on the industry, that brings people into movie theaters, doesn’t get recognition for that… So we chose the number of admissions as our only criteria for this one… Surprisingly it’s been well-received and I’m really happy because we beat the Oscars to it! I saw them trying to move in this direction but then being forced to backpedal.

Speaking of theater owners, there are two Netflix movies at the Davids this year, with “Roma” already the winner in the foreign film category. Has this been a problem?
The other Netflix movie is [Italian police brutality drama] “On My Skin” which, like “Roma,” is perfectly legitimate because it got a theatrical release. I can’t deny there’s been some pushback about “Roma” by theater owners because it has become such a battle cry. But I think we need to overcome these barriers.

Just to be totally clear, are there any anti-Netflix clauses in the new Davids rules?
No. At least not at the moment. If a Netflix movie gets a theatrical release within the parameters we have set [continuous programming for at least seven days in five regional capitals] then it’s eligible.

The Davids are paying tribute to Dario Argento this year shortly after Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” remake. Is that the reason?
No, not at all. As you know Argento is not so happy with the remake. I think the ceremony will mark the first time Argento and Guadagnino intersect in quite a while. The reason is that I realized that Dario Argento had never even been nominated for a David, or gotten a David career award. I thought this was so unfair and baffling that I put his name forward… He’s always been venerated outside Italy. And in Italy not even a nomination!

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