‘Joker’ Leads Films Primed to Kick Off Oscar Season at Venice

The 2019 Venice Film Festival, running Aug. 28-Sept. 7, reflects the seismic changes under way in Hollywood.

“There is a strange situation this year with American cinema due to what’s happening,” says artistic director Alberto Barbera. “An earthquake [is] undermining the U.S. film industry as we know it.”

Barbera, who’s been instrumental in turning the Lido into a prime awards season propeller, is mainly referring to Disney buying Fox “and dismantling it, so that in a while people won’t even remember that it existed.”

But he also points out that Paramount “is just distributing movies made by other outfits.” There is uncertainty about Sony. And Lionsgate is on the verge of a sale. So “there were definitely less quality [U.S.] goods on offer this year, even though we have no shortage of good [American] movies.”

The four Hollywood pics in the Lido’s 21-title competition roster are all entries with potential awards cachet. Titles looking for awards gold include James Gray’s “Ad Astra,” from Fox, starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut on a mission to save the solar system from imminent destruction; Noah Baumbach’s intimate Netflix divorce drama “Marriage Story,” with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson; and Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat” with Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, in a drama set against the international money scandal exposed by the Panama Papers.

Warner Bros. is launching “Joker,” above, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Batman villain, in what is expected to be a deliciously gritty R-rated superhero movie, on the Lido.

“It’s the most surprising film we’ve got this year,” says Barbera. “This one’s going straight to the Oscars, even though it’s gritty, dark, violent. It has amazing ambition and scope.”

Meanwhile, after Piers Handling, who is on the Venice jury this year, stepped down last year as the Toronto festival’s long-running chief exec, that Canadian event — now co-headed by Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey — has gotten more aggressive, gunning to get more world premieres in all its sections.

“I can understand them trying to get the world premiere of an American movie. That’s part of competition,” says Barbera. “But if you ask for the world premiere in the Platform or Discovery sections of a small Filipino or Malaysian film, tell me, who’s going to benefit from that?”

In Venice, Netflix will also launch Australian helmer David Michod’s Netflix title “The King,” an adaptation of several Shakespeare plays with an ensemble cast that includes Timothée Chalamet, Robert Pattinson and Lily-Rose Depp.

Even before Venice kicks off, European exhibitors have erupted in protest over the launch of Netflix’s star-studded titles in competition. UNIC, the organization that represents movie theater operators in 38 European territories, has demanded that the U.S. streaming giant grant assurances that the films will get a full theatrical release. It also slammed Barbera for continuing to embrace Netflix wholeheartedly, unlike the Cannes festival, which does not include those movies in its main competition because of fierce opposition from French exhibitors who sit on its board.

“It’s not my job to reply to them,” says Barbera. “I’m not here to tell Netflix or exhibitors what they should do.” He notes that Netflix is a bona-fide producer and a member of the MPAA. “I pick movies on the basis of their quality. That’s it.”

The other, more significant, issue that has prompted a barrage of fire is gender diversity, since there are only two films directed by women in the competition, which is only one more than last year.

Barbera points out that, overall, women directors account for 24% of this year’s Venice lineup, up from 20% last year. He also underlines that out of 1,860 submissions it received, 24% were works by female directors, the same percentage that made it to the lineup. The other important number, he says, is that this year the percentage of shorts screening in Venice, directed by women, is 50% and their submissions accounted for 43%. This is proof that “something is changing within the new generations,” he says.

Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel will preside over the jury.

Venice will also host a seminar that will delve deep into gender equality and inclusivity in the global film industry, organized by its parent organization La Biennale, European fund Eurimages, Women in Film Television and Media Italy and by Italy’s #MeToo organization, Dissenso Comune.

The fest is also courting controversy by adding “American Skin,” directed by and starring Nate Parker, to the lineup. Parker was riding high in 2016 on “Birth of a Nation,” but that film’s awards run and his career were stalled by the news that he had once been charged and was acquitted of rape. Spike Lee presents the film on the Lido.

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