The Venice Film Festival, after some ups and downs over the years, has been hitting its stride for the past decade thanks to Alberto Barbera, who has steadily steered the event forward by finding ways to make the grand dame’s historic grandeur flourish into a crucially important space for the future of filmmaking.
Variety will give its Intl. Achievement in Film Award to Barbera and La Biennale di Venezia at a ceremony at the Venice Film Festival. It is the first time that Variety is honoring an organization with this laurel.
Barbera’s career as a fest boss started in 1989 when he became artistic director of the Torino Film Festival, dedicated to young directors, and scoured the planet seeking fresh cinematic fare. Since then he’s seen the global fest circuit become much more competitive, impersonal and beholden to marketing machines.
More important, Barbera has witnessed — and been an integral part of — the evolution of filmmaking from the days when festivals were largely beholden to the auteur theory, which, by the early 1960s, “became so influential around the world,” he says. “It’s the cinema that I grew up with and shaped me and still exists.”
But by 1999, when he took over Venice for the first time, moviemaking “was radically changing.”
Today, as Barbera puts it, “that category of ‘auteur cinema’ no longer serves the purpose of explaining and interpreting the richness and diversity of contemporary cinema.”
So in 2012, when he was re-appointed to lead Venice after being removed in 2002 following a change in government, Barbera told Paolo Baratta, the head of the Venice Biennale at that time: “We have to broaden the themes. We have to realize that today the world isn’t just producing auteur cinema on the one hand and commercial cinema on the other. There is a whole set of shades in-between that we have to take into consideration.”
“The two things I like about Alberto are that he’s cheerful and that he’s an inclusive man,” says Barbara Salabè, who is the top Warner Bros. exec in Italy. “And you need to be cheerful to do his job, because the people he deals with always have problems and demands.”
Salabè also points out that Barbera — who is now Venice’s longest-serving artistic director — has been able to reshape and relaunch Venice thanks to the support of the Biennale, the fest’s parent organization.
“It was the presidents of the Biennale who understood that they couldn’t run this [event] anymore without a long-term plan. You can only position the festival that way if you have someone long term,” she says.
The Biennale’s support was even more crucial last year when Venice pulled off the feat of being one of the few top-tier fests to hold an in-person edition. Last year, Barbera spent the entire coronavirus lockdown, which in Italy started in March and ended in June, working on the selection process for the 77th edition scheduled for early September, without knowing if it was even going to take place. The situation was still uncertain in mid-June when the decision was made to hold Venice as an in-person event. Barbera managed to make it happen, with every one of the 65 world premiere screenings of feature films held in theaters.
Politics and big egos have long plagued Venice. But thanks to his pragmatism, Barbara has “veered away from any potential collision courses,” Salabè points out. “He has understood how to navigate a situation, and this has been his ability on the institutional side. But it’s also his ability in his rapports with producers, with the studios and with the international film community.”
For Barbera the film that marked a turning point was Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” which opened the fest in 2013.
Warner Bros. had showed him the film and the impression he got is they thought it was a genre film that would play quite well with audiences, but nothing more. Barbera instead saw it as a milestone movie that encapsulated the combination of commercial and highbrow cinema he was looking to embrace, so he decided to make it the Venice opener.
He was right. “Gravity” scored seven Oscars, including a best director statuette for Cuaron, becoming one of the most successful sci-fi movies of all-time.
“And that was the start of a long string of successes of American movies [launched from Venice] that go in the same direction,” he points out.
The following year, Venice opened with “Birdman.” Then in 2015, “Spotlight” launched; while in 2016 the opener was “La La Land”; in 2017 “Shape of Water” bowed; followed by “Roma” in 2018; “Joker” in 2019; and “Nomadland” in 2020. All won Oscars.
“These are all films that in some way are important because they represent that miraculous point of balance that we were seeking between auteur cinema and cinema that can talk to a wide audience,” says Barbera.
“Alberto has been a wonderful supporter of so many filmmakers, but to join him with the world premiere presentation of both ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien’  and ‘Roma’ were simply life-changing for many of us,” says Participant Media CEO David Linde. “It’s those kind of moments that make cinema so very special.”
“Barbera’s festival moves in modernity,” says Fremantle COO Andrea Scrosati. “He has understood that cinema comprises many elements, and he’s smartly open about this. That’s why Venice today is a fundamental reference point. It’s improved a lot.”
When Scrosati was head of content at Sky Italia, this far-sightedness prompted the fest to open up to TV series, “not in a relegated context,” Scrosati notes. “But in the Sala Grande,” the fest’s gala venue. “We really appreciated that ‘The New Pope’ premiered there because besides giving value
to the festival it also gave the type of recognition to the series that many of the talents involved were seeking.”
Barbera’s forward-looking mindset has also led to opening up the fest to virtual reality. Venice was among the first fests to program VR content and remains the only A-list festival with a competition dedicated exclusively to VR.
“It’s not that I think that VR is the future of cinema,” he says, “I think it’s something different, an atypical form of expression that depends from a new technology that will have an autonomous development and will have a different form of fruition and distribution” than cinema.
“But I thought it was interesting for Venice to be the festival that, more than others, is looking ahead.”
Then there is Biennale College, Barbera’s brainchild, which, over the past decade, has produced more than two dozen micro-budget movies that have gone on to make a splash and launched the careers of many directors.
“My impression is that among all the great festivals Venice is the one that has been able to innovate the most; look at what’s new, and take gambles with what’s new,” Barbera notes. “These gambles have paid off. That’s what I am the most proud of.”