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Renaissance in Venice: Film Professionals Smiling as Festival Wraps

Renaissance in Venice: Film Professionals Smiling
Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia/ASAC/Jacopo Salvi

The 77th Venice Film Festival drew to close on Saturday animated by the same spirit of low-key camaraderie that marked this entirely uncommon edition.

In order to host the first major physical event since the pandemic struck Europe, the festival reduced its selection, limited accreditations, and kept the screenings half-full, as well as a host of other COVID-19 precautions, the cost of which – in addition to the usual security costs – is understood to be around Euros 600,000 ($710,000), although the festival would not confirm the figure.

It also scaled down. There were few international stars, save for jury president Cate Blanchett and honoree Tilda Swinton, or U.S. prestige titles, except for Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” and Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” (though neither director attended).

The festival may have walled off its red carpet from the public, but the reduced scale and bubble-like atmosphere gave those within a shared sense of purpose, while the pared down selection drew cheers from the press.

Citing “revelatory wild cards” like Mona Fastvold’s “The World to Come” and Julia von Heinz’s “And Tomorrow the Entire World,” Variety critic Guy Lodge calls the lineup “fresh, diverse and surprising.”

“That the lineup was smaller this year did not feel like a loss,” says Lodge. “If anything, it gave this year’s edition more focus. They took the absence of the usual major U.S. titles, in particular, as a chance to give newer talents a platform and less-celebrated ones a breakthrough.”

Industry attendees were equally impressed.

“We had great feedback from everyone. People were so happy to be able to meet again. And to network in person,” says Pascal Diot, head of the Venice Production Bridge, as the festival market is officially known.

“We had more distributors this year because most of them are not going to Toronto, so they decided to come to Venice and stayed longer than usual,” says Diot.

“The ones who came really wanted to come to resume business,” Diot continues. “They didn’t just come to attend; they came to do deals after being more or less on hiatus for five months. So they were really eager to sign deals.”

According to still provisional figures the Venice market had 1,300 accredited execs, 290 of which just for the online aspect. So, more than 1,000 people physically onsite.

Despite the reduced number of participants (down nearly half from last year, but these are exceptional times) Diot adds he is “impressed by the number of deals that were announced,” pointing out that the Venice Gap Financing market generated more than 600 one-on-one meetings, roughly 370 of which onsite.

The distributors used the occasion to gauge better how potential acquisitions played, while producers and sales agents with films in selection benefited from the additional spotlight of a program that was more focused and easier to navigate – and of the infectious enthusiasm of an industry happy to gather anew.

“We had a bit more time to spend with our partners and we had more space to get to know new potential partners,” says producer Mike Downey, Film & Music Entertainment CEO, and chair of the European Film Academy.

Calling the market “quieter than normal,” Downey notes that concerns about ongoing production stoppages fueled acquisitions. “There is a scramble to fill whatever slots might be open if the cinemas remain open. Getting to a ‘yes’ was made easier by the lack of product and the uncertainty of what will be around [at the Berlin Film Festival].”

Films Boutique CEO Jean-Christophe Simon likens some of that market slowdown to whiplash from the pre-COVID world. “Given the current situation, asking prices can be very high,” he explains.

“Most of the sales companies have to buy films at script stage,” Simon continues. “So the amount we were expecting to make on certain films can be disconnected from [the realities of] the current box-office and the situations in the different countries. Because of all that, people take a bit more time [to decide] than usual.”

The exec still managed to close deals for competition title “Dear Comrades!” while on the ground in Venice, so Simon is pleased with his time here. “Considering the situation, I think it’s a promising market,” he says.

France TV Distribution’s Julia Schulte, who is brokering the sale of Nicole Garcia’s competition title “Lovers,” as well the Juliette Binoche-led drama “Between Two Worlds,”  found the ground more fertile than expected.

“It’s almost surprising,” she says. [Referring to the Binoche film, she added:] “Even in territories like Israel, which is practically back in lockdown, we were still able to sell. The conversations took a bit longer, and were tinged with more uncertainty, but distributors showed interest.” Still, Schulte grants that for certain territories, “We can’t exclude television and VOD releases.”

Drawing serious and sustained buzz were Uberto Pasolini’s “Nowhere Special,” starring James Norton (pictured above with Pasolini), Jasmila Žbanić’s “Quo Vadis, Aida?” and the one-two dystopian punch of Christos Nikou’s “Apples” and Michel Franco’s “New Order.”

Roger Michell’s “The Duke” was another title on everyone’s mind. The Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent-led dramedy, which played strong in every room, would normally have substantial theatrical prospects – and still very well might – drawing in an older demographic that loyally turns out. Will that particular audience return to the theaters post-pandemic? The industry will have to wait and see.

Bim Distribuzione CEO Antonio Medici, who picked up Italian rights for “The Duke” at last year’s AFM, argues it is all the more important to take the risk. “If you stop buying now, in six months to a year, you won’t have films to release or sell,” Medici says.

“We can be cautious, of course, because we don’t know how long it will take for the market to recover… COVID will not disappear in one month, so we have to learn to live with it. People want to watch movies on big screens.”

The final word should come from someone who didn’t come to Venice, but wished they had. A French acquisitions exec who opted to participate remotely told Variety they regretted the decision. “There’s only so much you can do on Zoom,” said the exec. “[Venice] proved that we need to have physical markets.”

Nick Vivarelli contributed to this story.