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For the global film industry, the 2021 Venice International Film Festival feels uncomfortably like a case of deja vu.
Last year, as much of Europe emerged from its first coronavirus lockdown, Venice 2020 was the first major film festival to hold an in-person, physical event. “We thought [the festival] would be the start of the reopening of everything — of production, distribution, theaters and so on,” says Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera. “This was not the case, obviously.”
A year on, Barbera is hoping Venice 2021 will serve as the real restart. “We don’t know yet, of course,” he says. “But I’m optimistic ours will be the first festival of a new era.”
That is, if the delta variant doesn’t spoil everyone’s party.
The highly contagious version of the coronavirus is behind a spike in COVID-19 infections worldwide, including those in the U.S., U.K., France, Spain, Japan and South Korea. The fall film festivals, which, alongside Venice include Telluride, Toronto and a broad second tier of events held in Locarno, Zurich, London, Edinburgh, San Sebastian, Tokyo and Busan, are having to adjust on the fly, making decisions on hygiene, travel and safety measures. Masks or no masks? Tests or vaccinations? Social distancing or full-capacity cinemas?
And all these decisions are based on information that could change tomorrow.
Toronto fans got some good news Aug. 9 with the announcement that Canada had reopened its border to the U.S., meaning fully vaccinated Americans are able to travel to TIFF. Canada is opening up to the rest of the world Sept. 7, two days ahead of TIFF opening night. Last year, the Canadian border was shut to virtually all international travel, and TIFF 2020 took place online, with only limited in-person screenings for locals and no major talent attending.
“It’s been a roller coaster the past year and a half, but the situation in Canada is very good right now,” says TIFF co-head and executive director Joana Vicente. “In Toronto, we have close to 65 percent fully vaccinated and Ontario is starting to open up. We understand we might not have all the talent come to TIFF this year, but hopefully a lot will.”
Several A-listers have decided to make the trip, including Naomi Watts, who will attend the premiere of the Phillip Noyce thriller Lakewood, in which she plays a mother racing against time to save her child during an active shooting, and Sigourney Weaver, who is expected to be flying in with writer-directors Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky for their comedy-drama The Good House.
But most executives contacted by The Hollywood Reporter say they’re on the fence about attending TIFF in person this year. “It still seems risky,” says one L.A.-based sales exec. “I think most people will be sitting this year out.”
Venice, which produced a hygienic but still impressively glamorous festival last year, is seen as a safer bet, and the international contingent is expected to turn out in force on the Lido.
“Venice pulled it off last year when no one was vaccinated and had a safe festival,” notes one talent agent. “All the filmmakers, all the stars are comfortable with the idea of going there again.”
Venice has received help from the Italian government, which will accept COVID-19 certificates or proof of vaccination from five countries outside the European Union, including the U.S. and the U.K. (visitors from within the EU can travel freely). The festival says it will secure special travel waivers for international attendees — talent, executives or journalists — so that they can visit without having to quarantine.
Telluride also is set for a bounce back after having to cancel its 2020 festival last minute amid an infection surge (scarily similar to the current delta spike). For the 2021 event, Telluride is requiring all visitors to show proof of vaccination in addition to a negative PCR test, taken within 72 hours of arrival, and mandatory mask-wearing at screenings.
“We respect the decisions of those who have decided to stay home,” Telluride said in an email to potential attendees outlining the new measures. “However, we believe [our] protocols substantively address the dangers of infection and serious illness posed by current COVID-19 variants. We are closely monitoring changing conditions.”
Elsewhere, delta has made sure the show won’t be going on.
On Aug. 10, the Chinese government announced its flagship cinema event, the Beijing International Film Festival, which was set to kick off Aug. 14, would be postponed amid a delta-driven resurgence in COVID-19 cases in the country. Beijing hasn’t given a new date for the event, which traditionally acts as a platform for the year’s Chinese blockbusters. In an ominous sign for those who hoped for a return to normal, local studio Bona Film Group cited the continuing spread of COVID-19 as the reason it was postponing the release of summer tentpole The Battle at Lake Changjin, believed to be the most expensive Chinese film ever made.
The Melbourne Film Festival, which started Aug. 5 and runs through Aug. 22, shuttered its in-person screenings and went online-only after the Australian state of Victoria entered a sixth lockdown amid a COVID-19 surge.
The European festivals might do better. Locarno, which wrapped Aug. 14, worked closely with the Swiss government to help unvaccinated attendees enter the country safely. “A lot of countries aren’t as far along with vaccinations, so we wanted to help people from there attend, if they are tested and negative,” says Locarno COO Raphaël Brunschwig.
Proof of vaccination, or a recent, negative PCR test, was required to attend indoor screenings. Following Cannes’ lead, Locarno set up a center for COVID-19 antigen testing, with swabs free of charge for attendees.
“We tried to make things as easy and smooth as possible,” Brunschwig says, “to [have] as normal a film festival as possible.” He estimates attendance this year was “70 to 80 percent” of what it was pre-pandemic.
There’s a lot riding on things getting back to normal. This year’s fall festival season, which kicks off Sept. 1 with Venice, comes at a critical time, as cinemas across Europe and North America are reopening and the entire industry — from studios to independent distributors to local theaters — is focused on getting film fans back into the habit of going to the movies again. Universal is counting on David Gordon Green’s Halloween Kills to scare up some publicity and word-of-mouth at its Sept. 8 world premiere in Venice before its global rollout in October.
Disney is counting on that old Venice magic to spur business for Ridley Scott’s historic epic The Last Duel, which premieres at the Italian festival, and Universal and Focus Features are looking for critical support for Last Night in Soho, Edgar Wright’s look at the dark side of swinging ’60s London that will hit Venice and Toronto before rolling out in theaters in late October.
Warner Bros. held back Denis Villeneuve’s Dune for many months before agreeing to give it an in-person red carpet premiere in Venice this year — to be followed by a Toronto bow — hoping the Lido event will give the hotly anticipated sci-fi epic the same box office boost it provided for another big-budget, auteur-driven film: Todd Phillips’ Joker, which premiered in Venice (and won the Golden Lion) in 2019 en route to a $1.07 billion global box office take. (Warners, it must be said, is hedging its bets, since Dune will bow simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max on Oct. 1.)
“The film festival is the shop window for these movies, it’s the showcase that brings the film to the attention of people,” notes Clare Binns, the joint managing director of U.K. exhibitor Picturehouse Cinema Group, the cinema partner for the Sundance London festival. “Just look at Wes Anderson and The French Dispatch. He waited and waited and waited to have a premiere in Cannes [in July], and the reaction was incredible. He would not have gotten all that attention on the film without all those stars on the red carpet, without having hundreds of press photographers. The thrill and the excitement, the buzz, is what puts bums in seats, and you can’t replicate that in any other way.” On a smaller scale, Binns points to Zola, the dramedy starring Riley Keough and Taylour Paige that closed the Sundance London festival. Ahead of its Aug. 6 U.K. release, Binns said the film has been “our fastest-selling movie” with reserve bookings, something she attributes directly to the festival bump.
Holly Daniel, head of development and industry at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which will hold a hybrid online and physical event Aug. 18-25, said Scottish audiences “came back straight away” when the festival announced it was reopening its main venue, the Filmhouse cinema. “We were selling out screenings,” says Daniel. “Of course, it’s limited capacity, but it’s very reassuring to know that people are willing to come back and re-engage with cinema.”
The promotional platform that a big festival provides also can be key for sales. Selection by an A-list festival is a mark of quality and draws the attention of buyers, both international and domestic. The global streamers also rely on the festivals’ pre-selection. Sian Heder’s CODA used its Sundance launch in January to secure a major global deal with Apple, which released the critically acclaimed drama across most of the world Aug. 13.
“It depends entirely on the film. CODA jumped out at this year’s Sundance as a commercial film with worldwide appeal that all buyers had the ability to see, and it became the biggest target,” says Patrick Wachsberger, one of the producers of Heder’s film. “The advantage of festivals, and why they are still very important for sales, is for the reviews that come out of them.”
“I think physical film festivals are very important for a certain kind of movie,” adds Martin Moszkowicz, executive chairman of leading German producer-distributor Constantin Film (Monster Hunter). “Anything that ‘celebrates’ cinema is good and important. The atmosphere at a premiere in a theater with an audience is unique. We really saw that in Cannes.”
The other reason the festivals matter is awards. The top-tier fests — Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Sundance, Telluride and Berlin — act as tastemakers, sifting through hundreds of movies every year and picking the one or two dozen films likely to win Oscar (or BAFTA or Golden Globe) attention. The second-tier fall events — Locarno, San Sebastian, Busan, New York, Edinburgh, Zurich, Tokyo and many more — act as amplifiers, picking their best-ofs from the bigger fests and giving favorite titles further juice as they move deeper into awards season.
“Ten years ago, awards season wasn’t so much about the festivals,” says one L.A.-based marketing and PR exec, a veteran of several successful festival-driven Oscar campaigns, “but with so much going on now, with so many movies out there, they’ve become critical in breaking through all the noise.”
Christian Jungen, artistic director for the Zurich Film Festival (which last year held an in-person event that featured Chloé Zhao’s eventual best picture Oscar winner, Nomadland), notes: “It’s the concentration of critics, film journalists and industry attendees. Just at our industry summit last year, we had 32 Academy members.”
“Without the physical festivals, the big issue we have is you don’t know the word-of-mouth on a film, you don’t know how it’s playing,” the marketing exec adds. “If you have your film at Telluride, you’re in the cinema with the audience, you hear the cheers or the boos. Then you’re in the lobby with the critics, and you hear what they think.”
Nomadland did a simultaneous Venice-Toronto-Telluride world premiere, then followed up with bows in Zurich, New York and Tokyo (as well as a hybrid online/physical screening in London), building buzz with every stop.
While Netflix has been known to bypass festivals and use its considerable marketing might to drive awards campaigns for straight-to-online releases — see Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7 — the streamer remains open to going the festival route for certain films, especially with directors who came up through that circuit. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma premiered, and won, at Venice in 2018, kicking off a phenomenal awards campaign for the Netflix title that culminated with 10 Oscar nominations and three wins, including the best director trophy for Cuarón.
The streamer is all over this year’s fall festivals, with Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God in competition in Venice, John David Washington starrer Beckett opening the Locarno festival and Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall, a Western starring Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz and Regina King, opening the London festival. Ahead of Venice, Netflix did a deal with Endeavor Content for all remaining worldwide rights to competition title The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature directorial debut.
Says Clare Binns of Picturehouse: “I think even the streamers recognize there is a difference between content and feeding the machine — and film. Film is about cinema. This year in Cannes, the cheering in the auditorium when they said ‘cinema is back’ was moving beyond belief. Cinema isn’t going anywhere, and neither are the film festivals that celebrate it.”
This story first appeared in the Aug. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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