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For the international film industry, the opening of the 78th Venice International Film Festival is accompanied by equal measures of promise and trepidation. The promise comes from Venice’s blockbuster lineup — from Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Dune, Ridley Scott’s period actioner The Last Duel and David Gordon Green’s horror sequel Halloween Kills to the latest from art house champions Pablo Larraín (Spencer), Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) and Pedro Almodóvar (whose Parallel Mothers opens the fest) — which could get film fans of all stripes excited about going back to the movies.
“Whether or not there’s a huge market in Venice this year, the line-up is really going to further drive excitement about moviegoing,” says Roeg Sutherland, co-head of CAA Media Finance.
The trepidation comes from concerns that the resurgent coronavirus, particularly its highly contagious delta variant, could force theaters, which have begun to reopen worldwide, back into lockdown.
“Distribution has come back, but business is a lot softer than it was; no one is sure what the future of theatrical looks like right now,” says Stefano Massenzi, head of acquisitions at Italian distributor Lucky Red. “I’m excited going into Venice — and optimistic — but a lot is still unclear.”
The murkiest aspect of the international film business remains traditional theatrical distribution. Reduced-capacity requirements in many territories has kept box office down — results in the U.K. and Japan have been roughly half their pre-COVID levels — and uncertainty surrounding the delta variant is making it harder for buyers to know what to expect from a future cinema release. France, the first major European country to allow full-capacity cinemas, saw box office quickly return to pre-pandemic levels only to fall back again in July following a new law requiring proof of vaccination for access to all indoor activities.
“It’s all very different from country to country, and that can have an impact on prices,” says Jean-Christophe Simon, CEO of production and sales group Films Boutique. “For very commercial projects, there is still a very strong market, but for more art house films, we have a problem of a backlog because so many distributors have films they bought one to two years ago that they still haven’t released.”
Don’t expect the streamers to pick up the slack, either. Online platforms went on a buying spree of finished films at the start of the pandemic to fill the gap left by the shut-down in global production, but as production has restarted, that acquisitions boom has waned. Instead of finished features — of the sort found in Venice’s official selection and sidebars — streamers are focusing more on pre-buying packages to secure global rights for top films as early as possible. Venice has never been much of a pre-buying market, so Netflix and company will be focusing their efforts on the Lido on promoting the films they already have acquired: the likes of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, starring Olivia Colman, which the streamer picked up for multiple territories, including the U.S., ahead of its festival bow.
“The streamers have definitely recognized the importance of festivals as a promotional platform,” notes Brian O’Shea of production sales group The Exchange. “They need them to elevate their projects above the noise.”
For the studios, the big question is whether an exclusive theatrical window (see Disney’s release of Free Guy, or Universal’s F9) or a multiplatform bow (Disney’s Black Widow, Warner Bros.’ The Suicide Squad) is the better option, and that is still being hotly debated. All eyes will be on the reception, and eventually performance, of Villeneuve’s Dune, which premieres Sept. 3 in Venice before a theatrical bow across most of Europe, followed by a simultaneous release in cinemas and on WarnerMedia streamer HBO Max in the U.S. on Oct. 22.
“Going into Venice, everything is still up in the air,” says Massenzi. “Coming out, and by the fall, we should know at lot more.”
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 1 daily issue at the Venice International Film Festival.
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