Italy's Taormina Fest Set to Begin With Gala 'Man of Steel' Premiere

Taormina Teatro Antico - H 2012

One of Europe's oldest film festivals has become a top launching pad for summer blockbusters.

ROME – Over the last two years, multiple cultural events in Sicily have been forced to close or dramatically scale back. And last year, when major budget woes hit the island’s Taormina Film Festival, it appeared the storied event could be next.

The rescue of the 59-year-old festival has been well documented: Cash-strapped Taormina Arte, the festival’s parent organization and its biggest financial backer by far, followed four years of reducing its support for the event by pulling it entirely in 2012, prompting then-artistic director Deborah Young -- The Hollywood Reporter’s international film editor -- to step down from her Taormina post. Two months before its traditional spot on the film festival calendar, the event had no staff, no films, and municipal officials were dodging questions about whether the event would take place or not.

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Enter Italian PR guru Tiziana Rocca and Mario Sesti, one of the founders of the big-budget International Rome Film Festival. In six weeks, Rocca scrambled to nail down at least minimal support from private sponsors, while Sesti cobbled together a lineup that included the international launch of Disney/Pixar’s Brave. The festival even screened Italy’s semifinal match from the European soccer championship. Taormina became the first festival in which director Lawrence Kasdan and his son, up-and-coming director Jon, both had films screen. Italian diva Sophia Loren made an appearance to show her support, as did Italian comic Carlo Verdone and Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam. The festival survived to fight another day.

“The budget problem last year was the biggest crisis the festival ever had, in nearly 60 years of history,” said Taormina Arte head Ninni Panzera, who has been connected to the event since 1987. “The people of this area and of Italy and Europe came very close to losing the event.”

Ornella Sgroi, one of Sicily’s top film journalists, agreed: “Losing Taormina would have been a terrible blow for Sicily,” Sgroi said. “For 59 years the festival has been part of the cultural fabric of this island, and losing it would have left everyone poorer.”

Other Sicilian events were less fortunate than Taormina. At least four other regional film festivals in Sicily were among the island’s cultural events that closed over the last year, and budgetary issues are still taking their toll on the eight-day Taormina event, which gets under way Saturday with no international competition and fewer screenings than in the years before the festival’s near-death experience.

But it is continuing with its high-visibility role as a launching pad for summer blockbuster films: Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel will open the festival Saturday in its European premiere, while Snyder, along with stars Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon and Amy Adams, will all be there for the event in Taormina’s signature Teatro Antico venue, built 2,400 years ago as part of a Greek colony.

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The Teatro Antico will also host Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger as its closing film on June 22, with an eclectic group of productions in between. The two tentpoles follow in the tradition of Brave a year ago, and Transformers, Toy Story 3, and Kung Fu Panda 2 from the last half-dozen years.

“It’s a great satisfaction to know that the Taormina ‘brand’ still means something, and that we are able to build on that,” said Sesti, who, like Rocca, is back for a second round in Taormina. “We want to climb back a little more each year.

Founded in 1954, Taormina is Europe's ninth-oldest international film festival: Only Venice (established in 1932), Cannes (1939), Locarno (1946), Edinburgh (1947), Karlovy Vary (1948), Berlin (1951), Mannheim-Heidelberg (1952) and San Sebastian (1953) predate it.  

Twitter: @EricJLyman