The upcoming Venice Film Festival, which is scheduled to run Sept. 2-12, is expected to be the first major international film event to hold a physical edition after the coronavirus crisis, albeit with a somewhat slimmer but still substantial lineup.
Variety spoke exclusively to Venice Artistic Director Alberto Barbera about how he’s been navigating the crisis, which has now led him to reduce the number of movies but keep the official selection structure intact. Roughly 55 titles will be world-premiering on the Lido either in competition, in the edgier Horizons section, or out of competition. Barbera is confident that most of the films will come with talent in tow. And, in an expected twist, says many of them are directed by women. Excerpts from the conversation.
How tough was it to decide to hold a physical festival?
There was lots of uncertainty at all levels. Nobody knew how the pandemic would evolve, [or] how and when the lockdown would end. Up until the beginning of May, I actually thought we could not have the festival. I was happy because after nine years, I would have been able to go on a summer holiday. But that was the only element of consolation vis-a-vis a very worrying and uncertain future.
When did you realize you could go ahead?
Towards the end of May, when lockdown started lifting in Italy, with a bit of uncertainty. That’s when we understood that we could probably hold the festival. But we still had doubts about safety protocols and how they would impact the presence of people in theaters. [There was also] the fear that we would have to [drastically] reduce the number of films.
Then, as we saw things improving and were able to think about how we could structure a typical festival day with different types of screenings on the grid, and being able to add outdoor venues, we understood that we could hold the festival and also save its central nucleus.
The program of roughly 55 films will not be so different from the usual program. It will be an extraordinary edition and certainly a smaller one — and one with exceptionally strong security measures — but also an edition that will adhere to Venice’s usual daily program and its collective rites, such as the red carpet and press conferences, like we’ve always done. It will be the first major international festival that marks a restart. A signal not just of optimism but of support and solidarity towards the (global) film industry. Towards auteurs and everyone who works in a sector that has been hit so hard by the COVID-19 crisis.
How are you going to bring talent from all over the world to Venice?
Right now, there are certain countries from which you can’t enter Italy, such as the U.S., Israel and some other countries around the world. But it’s clear that it’s a momentary restriction that could be lifted in the next few weeks if the situation, as we all hope, is destined to improve. There are still almost two months to go before the festival starts and it’s likely that in September these restrictions will no longer be in place. We will see.
But I can already say that I’m confident that the majority of directors and talent of invited films will be able to come to Venice and have confirmed that they will be coming. As for those who are uncertain, such as the Americans….and others from countries subjected to travel restrictions. I think this will change in the next few weeks.
I am optimistic about the possibility that most people will be able to come. If they can’t, or they don’t feel up to it, we will offer ways of promoting their films using online technologies. But, I repeat, the bulk of the films will be coming to Venice with a physical presence of talent.
What can you tell me about the American presence this year?
It’s clear that the situation in the U.S., which is still one of the hardest-hit countries…and in full lockdown, is such that we will not have those two or three big titles from the studios and Netflix that characterized past editions of Venice. For various reasons. Some had to stop production and will not be finished on time. Others have had the release date delayed due the Oscars being moved to the end of April. We know this and accept this. But luckily there will be American films, independent productions, and already completed films — films that need to be promoted and have accepted our invitation to Venice. Films will be coming from all over the world. I can guarantee this. There won’t be a gap in terms of geographical provenance.
Okay, but just to be crystal clear: no films from the Hollywood studios and none from Netflix?
Not quite. There won’t be any Netflix movies because, as you know, Netflix has postponed the release of its festival movies to a date still to be decided. Some aren’t ready. For example, the David Fincher (“Mank”) which was a film ideally destined for Venice, isn’t completed because he had to interrupt work on in…Same with other [Netflix] films. But that doesn’t mean we won’t have studio films. I can’t give you names and titles, but something from the studios will be coming. We have to be patient. We are still in full selection and negotiation. Things can still change for the better. I am optimistic and trust that the U.S. presence will not be disappointing.
Tell me about the safety measures
Security protocols keep changing in Italy. We don’t know what the new rules will be in September. Certainly, there will be checks with thermal scanners upon entrance to the festival area. There will be social distancing if necessary. We will use masks in the theaters if they are considered necessary. All the protocols that authorities impose will be respected. It’s in everyone’s interest that the festival take place with everyone feeling relaxed. We don’t want anyone to come here and be worried. We will do everything we can to apply all security measures to guarantee that.
Let’s go back to pre-pandemic Venice when the selection regularly came under fire for having few women directors. What about this year?
You will all be surprised this year. We really have lots of films directed by women. Not because we changed our selection criteria…But because we received lots of films directed by women that are of really great quality — better than the films by their male colleagues. So this year, the female presence will be extremely substantial. To an extent, that will end all the polemics of past years.
How is the red carpet going to work?
We have the advantage of having the longest red carpet in the world, so rearranging it for social distancing is quite easy. Photographers will be positioned [socially distanced from each other]. The talent walking down the catwalk will do so easily, keeping a distance from each other. The public who wait for them behind the barricades will be asked to respect social distancing to avoid any risks. None of the typical moments tied to the rituals of a festival will be canceled.
What about attendance?
Obviously, there will be a drop due to people not being willing or able to travel. But we are getting lots of requests for accreditation. We are trying to understand what the tipping point is and how many of these [requests] we will be able to accommodate so that everyone who attends will be able to see all the movies that they want to see. But I don’t think we will have less than a total of 6,000 accredited attendees, which is a significant number (roughly two thirds the average number on a regular year). A number that won’t make anyone notice too much the necessarily smaller nature of this exceptional edition in an exceptional year.