How Venice and Telluride Proved Film Festivals Can Still Thrive During COVID-19

Venice Film Festival
Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

Can a film festival still thrive in the age of COVID-19? Over the weekend, both Venice and Telluride answered that question with a definitive yes.

In Italy, starting on Sept. 1, major movie stars descended on the Lido like it was the best of times, as crowds inside the historic Sala Grande theater showered the latest prestige titles from Pedro Almodóvar (“Parallel Mothers”), Pablo Larraín (“Spencer”) and Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”) with lengthy standing ovations.

Some movie stars — such as Kristen Stewart, Benedict Cumberbatch and Maggie Gyllenhaal — then flew some 5,600 miles to a resort mountain town in Colorado, where they snapped selfies with journalists and sat through new screenings and applause all over again.

What’s been so striking about the 2021 official kickoff to fall awards season was just how normal it felt. The success of Venice, one of the only major festivals to hold an in-person event in 2020, and Telluride offers hope that Hollywood can still screen movies, throw flashy premieres and bring people together, even as cases of the delta variant surge across the globe.

Of course, not everything has been business as usual. The annual Toronto Int’l Film Festival, which kicks off on Sept. 9, is expected to be a smaller affair, as the fest has made many of its titles available on a virtual screening platform.

But where Toronto has lost some of its usual momentum due to Ontario’s COVID situation, Venice has gained ground while prioritizing safety. The 9,000 attendees at the festival (two-thirds the pre-pandemic capacity) adhered to strict protocols. Roughly 90% were vaccinated, according to a pre-festival survey, and those who weren’t had to regularly visit one of 12 rapid COVID test swab spots on the Lido.

Artistic director Alberto Barbera’s only regret is that due to COVID precautions, the red carpet, just like last year, “is out of bounds for fans,” he says. Once again Venice was forced to place an outer barrier shielding the long catwalk entirely, to avoid close-knit crowds. Socially distanced photographers were positioned inside the wall.

To try to keep everyone pacified, Barbera says he “multiplied screenings, using all available venues on the Lido and elsewhere.” He even set up an outdoor area, called the Arena Lido, in a skating rink.

Venice continued its track record of catapulting movies into the awards season race. Among the winners, judging by the Italian applause-o-meter: “Spencer,” Larraín’s drama about Princess Diana set over the course of three days during a tumultuous Christmas holiday with the royal family. Stewart left Italy as the early front-runner in the Oscar best actress race for the film, which Neon and Topic Studios will release in the U.S.

Meanwhile, all of Italy could hear the cheers for Warner Bros.’ star-studded Sept. 3 world premiere of Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” with Timothée Chalamet in a shimmering black suit on the red carpet.

Netflix — which bypassed Cannes because the festival won’t allow streaming movies in competition that don’t have exclusive theatrical distribution — proved to be omnipresent in Italy. The streaming giant not only entertained guests on a private yacht on the Adriatic Sea but also unveiled four movies at the festival: Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” a period drama starring Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst, which will likely be a strong Oscar contender; Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, “The Lost Daughter,” with Olivia Colman; Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God”; and the Brazilian drama “7 Prisoners.”

“We’ve had a history here the last few years. It’s a great beginning to the season,” says David Kosse, Netflix’s vice president of international film, referencing the Venice launches of 2018’s “Roma” and 2019’s “Marriage Story.”

Telluride, which saw 5,000 guests, also proved to be a strong launching pad. The festival — which held packed screenings of “Spencer,” “The Power of the Dog,” “The Lost Daughter” and “The Hand of God” — put Will Smith back in the Oscar race with Warner Bros.’ “King Richard,” a crowd-pleasing drama about Richard Williams, the father of tennis champs Venus and Serena. Also joining him in the awards conversation: Joaquin Phoenix for playing a radio journalist in the A24 drama “C’mon C’mon” and Kenneth Branagh for directing the cinematic memoir “Belfast,” which Focus Features will release.

Even with all the hand sanitizer, studios were taking added precautions. Netflix held multiple celebrations for its films that screened, and sent journalists individual self-administered COVID tests. Other studios hosted their gatherings outdoors.

Back in Venice, the festival’s customary gala dinner on the Excelsior beach was canceled. But there have been lots of private parties, including a pre-opening night rooftop bash co-hosted by Variety and the Hotel Danieli, a star-studded dinner held by Chanel at Harry’s Bar and a posh poolside cocktail event hosted by Netflix at the Excelsior.

On Venice’s first day, jury president Bong Joon Ho offered a hopeful forecast for the future. “As a filmmaker, I don’t believe that the history of cinema and cinema could be stopped so easily,” he said. “So COVID will pass, and cinema will continue.”

Clayton Davis contributed to this report.