Venice-Rome bout in early rounds

Despite public denials, fight for top spot a donnybrook

The dark rain clouds above the Lido that overshadowed the glamorous opening of the Venice Film Festival this week might have been a harbinger of troubles to come for this grand dame of festivals as it continues to fend off brash new rival the RomaCinemaFest.

Certainly each festival can claim to be landing heavy hits in what appears now to be a real bout to secure the Italian championship title of festivals — though neither has come close to striking a knockout blow.

Much of the fight, industry observers say, comes down to the positioning in the calendar, with Venice now considered to be the starting point in the ever-lengthening Academy Awards campaign race and Rome considered a superior venue for gauging public reaction to new productions.

This year, Venice struck the first big blow by unveiling a 22-film competition lineup featuring all world premieres for the second edition in a row.

With all the big festival names in Venice this week, including the Festival de Cannes' newly promoted Thierry Fremaux and Berlin topper Dieter Kosslick, it's a slugfest everyone is watching.

"Rome obviously wants to occupy the space Venice occupies, as the main Italian festival," one Italian studio executive said. "But Venice has history on its side. They have to find a way to co-exist, or the battle between them may leave both weaker."

But recent events seem to be pointing in the opposite direction. Just days after Venice revealed its glitzy program, Rome fired back with the announcement that its sophomore edition would open with Shekhar Kapur's "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," with its star-studded cast including Oscar winners Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush and Clive Owen.

On the business front, meanwhile, most industry attendees are in agreement that Venice's continuing lack of anything approaching a market is becoming the irritating cut above the eye that could bring the fight to a halt.

"From an acquisition or discovery point of view, there is nothing going on here," one U.S. acquisitions executive noted. "This year is particularly difficult. It seems they (organizers) have concentrated on getting premieres and forgotten about everything else. People have gone shopping, but not for movies, on the first day."

Rome, on the other hand, has introduced a quasi business market by providing a meeting place for business transactions. It will expand that facility from three to four days this year. A spokesman for Rome said the festival does not want to "sell booths like Berlin or America … but the idea is to expand step by step in a slow way. We don't have ambitions to become a big or a main market."

He added: "I don't think Rome is the threat that Venice has to face — the competition is coming from Toronto. It's like a war machine against Venice."

Officials at both festivals officially brush off the controversy as a creation of the media, though behind closed doors they remain eager to point out each other's weak points.

The Italian press, meanwhile, is claiming that the creation of the Rome festival and its aggressive and well-heeled bid for prominence has put a rocket under Venice — and that's why Venice has responded with back-to-back world premiere-laden competition lineups.

Tullio Kezich, a film critic with Corriere della Sera who began covering Italian film festivals at Venice in 1946 and is a dean of the Italian press corps, said both festivals should be able to co-exist.

"I don't think Rome and Venice have to be rivals, but it does seem that they are," Kezich said. "The emphasis on world premieres is the issue. Why should it matter if Rome shows a film that a few hundred people saw in Venice a few weeks earlier? It shouldn't, but it does, and as long as it does I think they will be rivals."
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