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Sorry, Cannes, but this year Venice has you beat. Again. The combination on the Lido of big-budget blockbusters Dune, Halloween Kills, The Last Duel — with high-end art house and independent titles — Pablo Larraín’s Spencer with Kristen Stewart, Ana Lily Amirpour’s Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, Shirin Neshat’s Land of Dreams with Sheila Vand and Matt Dillon — makes Venice the A-lister among 2021’s A-list fests. Even Cannes’ late start — the French festival was held in July instead of May this year — is unlikely to cramp Venice’s style or threaten the Italian event’s position as the No. 1 festival launchpad for fall releases and awards season.
Under the reign of artistic director Alberto Barbera, Venice has gained in prestige and industry importance. It’s helped that Barbera has embraced Netflix and television productions — this year’s lineup includes Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog and Pablo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, both produced for Netflix, as well as the premiere of the HBO series Scenes From a Marriage, with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac — avoiding the “us vs. them” approach of Cannes, which sides with theatrical distributors against streamers, banning films from competition if they go out online-only.
“Venice is the first major festival event of the fall season, and all eyes are on the new crop of quality films jostling for awards attention. It’s an honor to be part of that,” says Negeen Yazdi, senior vp film development and production at Endeavor Content, which pre- sold Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Venice competition title The Lost Daughter worldwide, including a multiterritory deal with Netflix, ahead of its Lido debut.
All that’s missing is a market.
There’s no equivalent in Venice to Cannes’ Marche du Film or Berlin’s European Film Market. Even the Toronto Film Festival, which has never had an official market, attracts a much larger contingent of industry folk (nearly 4,000 for its digital/in person hybrid event last year) than Venice and regularly delivers headline deals.
Venice’s industry events — held under the auspices of the Sept. 2-7 Venice Production Bridge — are well attended and well regarded, particularly the gap-financing market, which features international projects seeking co- producers and co-financiers. But the festival’s industry component remains tiny compared with Cannes, Berlin, Toronto or Sundance.
“There have been several attempts to try to set up a real market in Venice, but they’ve never really caught on,” notes Thorsten Ritter, executive vp worldwide acquisitions, sales and marketing at Germany’s Beta Cinema. “We all realize that the Lido just doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a physical market.”
“You don’t have the space, you don’t have the hotels, you don’t have the screening capacity to make it work,” notes Claudia Bedogni, acquisitions head of Italian distribution Satine Film and a 30-year Venice veteran, pointing to the limited options on the Lido, the 6-mile-long island that plays host to the fest. “You go to Cannes for the market, you go to Venice for the movies.”
Ritter notes that “business still gets done” in Venice — last year, Beta closed deals for the U.S. (with Koch Film) and the U.K. (Curzon) for Uberto Pasolini’s Nowhere Special after its world premiere in Venice’s Horizons sidebar — but that the approach is more informal and more closely linked to the festival.
“It’s about having a film in official selection, having that seal of approval,” he notes, “then about getting the critical support, getting great reviews, getting the red carpet photos you can share on social media to get people excited about the film. It’s not about pitching a trailer to a buyer in a booth.”
“Ultimately it’s the very fact that the festival isn’t a fully-fledged market that allows the focus to remain on the films themselves,” adds Yazdi. “The way Alberto programs the festival allows each film to breathe and for audiences and press to discover new stories and voices.”
Yazdi points to Costa Brava, the feature debut of Lebanese filmmaker Mounia Akl, which Endeavor Content, together with Participant and France’s MK2 Films, is selling worldwide and which will premiere in Venice’s new Horizons Extra sidebar.
“It promises to be a brilliant launchpad for an exciting emerging auteur voice,” she says.
Then there’s the fact that physical film markets are a bit passe these days. Eighteen months of COVID lockdown and the success of digital-only or digital hybrid events have shown that business can get done via Zoom just as easily as a formal market.
Ultimately, for many in the industry, adding a film market on the Lido risks spoiling what makes Venice so special. “It’s a place where time seems to have been stopped and where you can just watch a movie without any of the noise,” says Ritter. “It’s the last bastion for cinema romantics.”
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 2 daily issue at the Venice International Film Festival.
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