Fate of Rome Film Festival Could Be Decided Wednesday

Marco Mueller
Photo by Luca Dammicco

The beleaguered eight-year-old event is suffering from budget issues, low sponsorship, and political infighting. A meeting Wednesday will try to fix the problems.

ROME – The fate of the eight-year-old International Rome Film Festival will likely be set at a closed-door meeting of the festival’s stakeholders Wednesday afternoon.

The Rome festival was launched in 2006 with great fanfare and hopes of challenging the venerable festival in Venice, the world’s oldest film festival, for dominance in Italy. A high-visibility rivalry between the events never materialized, and in recent years Rome settled into a comfortable niche among European festivals, until hopes dramatically rose again last year -- at least briefly -- with the arrival of former Venice chief Marco Mueller and ex-Warner Bros.-Italia head Paolo Ferrari.

Like most entities in Italy, the event has been hit hard by Italy’s protracted economic malaise, which has had an impact on stakeholder budgets, sponsorship levels, and even the pocketbooks of moviegoers. But, according to expert observers, the Rome festival has been hurt more than most because of a series of additional factors, including:

• Bad blood left over from the contentious battle that installed Mueller and Ferrari artistic director and president, respectively. Mueller’s criticisms of the Rome event while at Venice and his grandiose vision for the festival engendered opposition from some festival backers who instead supported then-incumbents Piera Detassis and Gian Luigi Rondi. Many are still smarting after losing that battle.

• Political fallout: Rome mayor Gianni Alemanno had been a powerful backer of Mueller and Ferrari and of the festival itself, but that support could be in jeopardy pending the results of upcoming mayoral elections. Meanwhile, Nicola Zingaretti, who as head of the province of Rome was a backer of Detassis and Rondi, was recently elected president of the region of Lazio, a more influential post. He has been a critic of the festival’s direction, though in recent days he offered a tentative vote of support for the event. Additionally, a political reform has eliminated the provincial government of Rome, splitting the province’s former responsibilities between the City of Rome, the Region of Lazio, and a new administrative body. But it is so far not clear where the province’s economic backing worth €600,000 ($795,000), will come from.

• The seventh edition of the festival, the first after the high-profile arrival of Mueller and Ferrari, failed to live up to expectations Mueller helped raise with brash promises of big-name films and 60 word premiers. After the event, Mueller was quick to point out (accurately) that he had only seven months to pull the festival together, and the festival did indeed screen 60 world premiers. But the lineup that featured only a handful of high-profile screenings -- the European premiere of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, plus Sylvester Stallone thriller Bullet to the Head, and Dreamworks’ Rise of the Guardians were the most familiar names on the schedule -- but with V OĹžidanii Morja (Waiting for the Sea), a mystical epic from Tajikistan-born Russian director Bakhtiar Khudojnazarov, selected as the opening film, and a competition full of films that failed to resonate (some even drawing boos and hisses), hurt. Combined with a rise in ticket prices, that hurt the word-of-mouth reception of the festival, and attendance fell 17 percent compared to the previous edition.

• The Italian media is naturally aggressive, and it has had the Rome festival in its sights for some time. The biggest Italian newspapers gave big play to reports of budget problems, discontent over ticket prices, film selections, and rivalries between the upstart Rome event and other festivals (Officials in Venice, Mueller’s former stomping grounds, have taken jabs at Rome when possible, and organizers of the 31-year-old Turin Film Festival have been vocal critics, especially after Rome, at Mueller’s insistence, moved its dates to within a week of Turin’s last year). All the critical ink has reportedly scared some sponsors away, a potentially big blow that could force the festival to cut back dramatically or rely on increasingly cash-strapped government entities to bridge the finance gap.

None of the stakeholders -- various government entities, the Rome Chamber of Commerce, the Auditorium Parco della Musica venue, and Ferrari -- would discuss the future of the festival on the record heading into Wednesday’s key meetings. But Ferrari issued a statement last week brushing aside financial concerns and stating that staff was already hard at work on this year’s edition of the event. The festival also announced new packages of low-priced tickets, starting at just €3 ($4). And Zingaretti issued his own statement saying the regional government would stand behind the festival and honor its obligations, though he also indicated the regional government would not increase its contribution compared to previous years.

A resolution could come as soon as Wednesday.

Twitter: @EricJLyman