Though ongoing border restrictions kept the Venice Film Festival off-limits to most of Hollywood, the Lido wasn’t entirely devoid of Americans. Casts and crews of selected films and other invitees were able to enter Italy in limited numbers, using festival invitation letters to circumvent the country’s ban on non-essential travel. Those who braved the journey got their share of double takes from unsuspecting Europeans in the process.
Nick Shumaker, an agent with UTA, received a letter from the festival inviting him to attend, but had to take nasal swabs both 72 hours before leaving the U.S. and immediately upon arrival in Venice. The State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs has given Italy a Level-3 travel advisory, advising Americans to “reconsider travel.”
Because he helped package, finance and sell Mona Fastvold’s pioneer drama “The World To Come” and represents “Never Gonna Snow Again” director Malgorzata Szumowska, the film exec had plenty of professional reasons to be there, though there was no small degree of personal volition as well.
“I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see a rebirth or partial rebirth of the festival market for independent film,” Shumaker tells Variety. “On a personal level, I really was curious to see how the rest of the world has been dealing with the virus, knowing I’ve been primarily in a very small town in upstate New York since the pandemic struck in March.”
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What was his experience once he was in Venice? “The actual process of selling films largely remained the same, but the reactions to my presence as an American felt different,” Shumaker says.
“International colleagues were shocked to see me as I didn’t announce my trip to many people,” he continues. “I wasn’t ostracized, but I was greeted more with surprise. When I checked into my hotel, the manager, who I’ve known over the years, said I was the first American she’d checked in since the pandemic and lockdown in Italy began.”
Cinestate’s Dallas Sonnier, who produced the out of competition thriller “Run Hide Fight,” had similar experiences on the streets of Venice. “Everywhere we go… folks hear our accents and turn in surprise,” he says. “Many of the locals have commented that we are the first Americans they have seen in nearly a year.”
“[We flew from] Los Angeles, New York, Texas and Missouri,” Sonnier explains. “I chose to make a grand gesture to this world-class festival by bringing 20 Americans overseas for the premiere. Having a movie in Venice is a dream come true, and I wanted to honor my hard-working cast and crew by letting them share this experience of a lifetime.”
Of course, doing so required a degree of logistical finesse. The delegation had to take tests in both the U.S. and Italy, could only stay in Europe for 120 hours, and had to have their invitation letters ready at check-in and customs at both airports. The producer credits the festival for making it happen at all.
For some, there was a level of uncertainty around attendance that came down to the wire. “Up until a week before the festival, I wasn’t sure that it was going to happen,” Killer Films’ Christine Vachon tells Variety.
Vachon, in particular, would have been missed if she hadn’t been able to travel. Not only did the prolific “Carol” and “Far From Heaven” producer have a new film, “The World to Come,” in competition, she was also due to serve on the festival’s Horizons jury. But up until the last minute, Vachon just wasn’t sure.
“I was always going to come, but I was afraid that Italy would say, ‘We don’t want any Americans after all,’” she says. “Things change so rapidly that I wasn’t sure it was all going to come together.”
Good fortune prevailed for Vachon, though she was aware of the risks her journey entailed.
“I felt like there was a risk level I could live with,” Vachon explains. “Italy had been through what New York had been through, which was devastating. The past few months were really hard, [but] I felt that at least I was coming to a country that had been through something very similar, so was probably going to take it very seriously.”
“At the risk of sounding saccharine,” she adds, “We’re all in this together.”