Italy's fest sked a mixed blessing

Plethora of events makes it difficult for any one to stand out

Paramount's decision to use the Taormina FilmFest earlier this month as the launch pad for its big-budget action flick "Transformers" was the opening salvo in a battle between the growing number of Italian film festivals to set themselves apart from the crowd.

Italy's film festival calendar may be more crowded than any other, with established fests such as Venice, Taormina and Turin all battling for audiences and attention.

Also in that mix is the deep-pocketed RomaCinemaFest, which will hold its sophomore edition in October, and scores of second-level events including the Far East Film Festival in Udine, the European Film Festival in Lecce, the Milano Film Festival, the Pesaro New Film Festival, the NapoliFilmFest, the Salento Fear Festival, and the Potenza International Film Festival — none of which existed a dozen years ago. And more are joining the fray: The Drake Film Festival opened Saturday, and the Italian media regularly runs stories about new events in the works.

Each is taking high-profile steps to differentiate itself from its rivals: In early June, for example, the Coen Brothers went to the Napoli Film Festival to receive a prize, and the 37th annual Giffoni Film Festival announced that actor Danny DeVito will emcee its opening in July.

Last year, Rome and Venice clashed over the timing of announcements about top-shelf stars at each event, and Turin put itself on the map this year by naming prize-winning Italian auteur Nanni Moretti as artistic director.

For film distributors, the selection of festivals can represent an embarrassment of riches.

"Put it this way: Anyone wanting to screen a film in Italy won't be at a loss as to how to do it," said one U.S. distributor on hand at the Taormina festival. "A distributor just starts at the top and goes down the list until somebody says they'll take it."

While that might be good news for distributors, insiders say it's probably less positive for the fests themselves.

"They are making these festivals because there is a demand, and the quantity shows that people want to go to them," said Tullio Kezich, veteran movie critic at the Corriere della Sera, who began covering Italian film festivals with Venice in 1946. "But you only have so many good films, and so, after a point, festivals are forced to lower the bar in order to fill out their schedule."

Dirk Schurhoff, head of German sales group Beta Cinema, predicts the problem in Italy will worsen.

"The various Italian festivals are definitely cannibalizing each other," Schurhoff said. "There is a real question whether we need so many big festivals in Italy and — with Rome and Venice — why they are so close together."

Most Italy-based industryites declined to speak about the subject on the record, but, privately, the consensus is that at some point in the future the rise in the number and scope of festivals in Italy will slow and, eventually, a few insiders predict that some festivals may be forced to close, merge or scale back.

The problem is most acute in the fall, when festivals have clustered both because venues are more readily available and because it positions films to attract attention ahead of the busier winter months and to be fresh in the minds of voters for the following year's Oscars and other prizes such as Italy's David di Donatellos.

Kezich said that there were 21 film festivals in Italy during the three-month period from August to October last year, making the period that includes both Venice and Rome particularly cut-throat.

But according to Richard Borg, UIP-Italia's managing director and one of the people responsible for bringing "Transformers" to Taormina, the calendar can be a benefit for a festival that goes against the tide.

"The summer blockbuster film has been a regular thing in the U.S. market, but it is just arriving in Italy," Borg said. "That trend can help festivals that are positioned as a springboard for the summer season."