Inside the Rome Film Festival's Big Gamble

Marco Cristofori/Corbis

Artistic director Marco Mueller is betting on transforming his troubled event into a can't-miss market for global dealmakers

This story first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Faced with a crowded fall lineup Italy's younger film festival has rebranded itself as a testing ground for European buyers and distributors.

Venice is the cultural darling of cinema's top auteurs. Toronto and Telluride are the key launchpads for North American premieres. Berlin has a monopoly on the winter market. Cannes is in a league of its own. So what's left for Rome? The fest has struggled with its identity since its founding in 2006.

The festival, which runs Oct. 16 to 25, launched with the goal of supporting the local film sector in the Eternal City, where a majority of Italy's cinema industry is based. But hit by the country's ongoing recession, its budget now stands at about $7 million -- a third of its peak -- with about 20 percent of that amount coming from the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities.

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"I wonder if we can really afford two big international festivals in Italy," said Francesca Cima, filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino's go-to producer, during a recent industry debate in Rome, where she cited a need to examine the goals of each event. Antonio Medici, head of Italian distributor BIM, was more direct: "Italy is in an economic crisis. How can it afford to have two big festivals that even France or Germany don't have?"

By rebranding the event for its ninth edition as a testing ground for the European market, Rome Film Festival artistic director Marco Mueller has set out to prove naysayers wrong. In lieu of traditional juries, there will be five People's Choice Awards across the fest's programs, voted on by the audience. And the lineup has been slimmed to 51 "popular but singular titles," as Mueller describes them, including 24 world premieres.

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Mueller claims that industry players long for the spirit of MIFED, Milan's famed market that for 45 years was the European industry's key fall event. Its closing in 2005 marked the end of an era, and he believes the Rome festival's market, The Business Street, can fill the void.

Most films in the fest's Gala lineup will be seeking European buyers, including Stephen Daldry's Trash, Oren Moverman's Time Out of Mind, Richard Glatzer's Still Alice and Mike Binder's Black and White. Non-U.S. pictures also will seek buyers, including Takashi Miike's festival honoree As the Gods Will and a slew of local Italian films.

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Mueller says that by showing films to various audience segments throughout the city, the event will help distributors size up the market for often difficult-to-sell titles such as debut features, documentaries and non-Western films. He is banking on the idea that Rome can prove its value to the international marketplace, an idea whose success depends largely on how strongly festivalgoers can influence the industry at large.

It's a big gamble but one that, if successful, could allow other festivals to follow suit.

If it doesn't work, don't expect Mueller to return: His contract expires after this year's fest.

Ever the optimist, Mueller insists his plan will succeed: "I expect the buying and selling to increase this year. Films need to be seen by buyers and audiences."

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