How Closing Hollywood's Favorite Hotel Killed Venice Film Fest's Social Scene

Inaugurazione Mostra Des Bains - La Biennale di Venezia - foto ASAC (8)-Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia/ASAC

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, one property on the Lido served as the international film club to see and be seen.

The Venice International Film Festival over the past decade has transformed into a hotspot for star power and films looking to launch their Oscar runs — from Spotlight to Roma. But as the Lido has regained its status among award-season tastemakers, one Hollywood mainstay, which shuttered in 2009, is still sorely missed.

The Grand Hotel des Bains, built in 1900, was a storied partner of the festival throughout its history, welcoming everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Marlon Brando in Hollywood’s Golden Age. In the 1990s, the heyday of the indie film industry, when international presales were more integral to film financing (and before Toronto became, as it is today, a center of dealmaking) the Hotel des Bains was where it all happened. If you were lucky enough to get a room.

"It was the place to be seen, to do your thing," says Participant Media CEO and Roma producer David Linde. "That was the center of the industry. Definitely. Absolutely."

Linde describes the hotel as a “significantly more intimate and concentrated version of Cannes. Every single major distributor of high-end specially films attended, and most stayed at the des Bains. You had an unbelievable locus of talent and distribution at the same place.”

Heavenly Creatures, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Brokeback Mountain were all basically launched out of the des Bains. The combination of just those movies and those directors and the people working on those movies was just incredible,” he says.

As the key locale for late-night drinks, PR junkets and distributor pool parties, the hotel was a who’s who of key industry players. What made it unique was the festive, relaxed atmosphere that gave the end-of-summer festival a holiday vibe.

“When we used to come, the concierge would greet our kids,” says Linde. “And we would let them run around the pool all day long. It was a very intimate, protected, friendly atmosphere. The beauty about the des Bains was the amount of time you could spend with your partners, at breakfast, at a meeting, hitting a tennis ball around. It was an environment that you really rarely see today. I’m not sure where that’s echoed in the world."

"I do remember a meeting very clearly with a famous woman director on the terrace and two execs who arrived at 9 a.m. the day of her screening," says PR icon Charles McDonald, who launched numerous campaigns at the hotel. "They were dressed in tennis gear. It was a very intense meeting about marketing, and after a quarter of an hour they looked at their watches, said they had a tennis match booked and split. The director’s jaw dropped."

The 190-room hotel offered incredible amenities including a solarium and an underground passageway that led directly to the beach, and a cozy terrace. Passersby largely respected the privacy of the locale and did not infringe on the territory.

The hotel opened briefly last year, with a photo exhibition in the Sala Visconti showcasing the des Bains' storied festival guests from 1932 to 2018. Festival regulars were thrilled to see the structure of the grand room had remained largely unchanged, its octagonal walls still enhanced with wooden oak boiserie and tall Murano glass windows letting in a flood of natural light. This year the hotel will open its doors again for a collection of 300 oversized Polaroids taken from 1996 to 2004.

The des Bains has changed hands many times over, including a purchase by the Sheraton group in 2005. An Italian real estate fund purchased it in 2008 to retool it as private accommodations, but then the recession hit and the deal fell apart.

Now, the hotel is at the center of a grand plan to renovate the Lido as a tourist destination, luring folks away from Venice's disastrously overcrowded San Marco district. But, at the moment, no formal plans have been announced. Rumor has it that many of the hotel’s main treasures, including handcrafted chandeliers and priceless artwork, have already been stripped away by various owners. The property is now under the control of real estate fund COIMA SGR which has earmarked €60 million ($67 million) to renovate the hotel. But work is not slated to start until at least 2021, and it will take at least another three years before the property can fully reopen as a hotel.

Lido regulars remain skeptical, however, that the des Bains can ever return to its glory days. “It was filled with rather glamorous sales ladies and gentlemen lulling about and reading at the pool, and lots of late-night hijinks and drinks. Things were more leisurely in the industry,” says McDonald, who fondly remembers going swimming in the pool with Bill Murray after a long day of Lost in Translation junketing. In today's cash-strapped indie industry, such leisurely luxury seems inconceivable.

Every Venice regular has a des Bains story. "I was sitting there one night with a group of industry people when there was an almighty crash that sounded like something falling from a height onto a dining table," says PR veteran Jonathan Rutter. "Without batting an eyelid, one of my companions said, ‘That must be (un-named director) throwing themselves from their balcony after those reviews.'"

Today, A-listers looking for the five-star treatment head to the Bauer or Cipriani on the Grand Canal. While luxurious, it is inconvenient and requires shuttling back and forth to the festival in pricey boat taxis. Close to the Lido's Palazzo del Cinema, the fest hosts guests at the Excelsior, whose stodgy interiors, less-than-friendly staff and lack of privacy hardly make it ideal for talent or intimate deal negotiations.

“The des Bains was a real meeting point,” says McDonald. "The Excelsior is not that.”

He remembers a recent incident in which he received an early morning “anguished” call from Liev Schreiber, and his then-partner Naomi Watts, who had attempted to get breakfast at the hotel. “Word got around that they were staying there and they were totally mobbed,” he says. “They couldn’t even get out of the elevator.”

“The Excelsior, I find it’s so full of autograph hunters and the like. Big names can’t sit and have a drink or they’ll just get absolutely mobbed,” McDonald says. “At the des Bains, we thought, it was all just so incredibly civilized.”