Locarno Film Festival: Swiss Bliss


Q&A: Locarno honoree William Friedkin

It might be located in a part of the world famous for its neutrality, but don't let that fool you: The Locarno International Film Festival is an edgy little event that isn't afraid to choose sides.

Despite the challenge of blending the diverse cultural influences of the region -- the German-speaking north, the French-speaking west and Italians from the south -- the 62-year-old festival, which runs Aug. 5-15 in Switzerland, is steadily forging a strong reputation for innovative, provocative programming that manages to attract both a large public audience and a sizable industry presence.

"It's a festival known for being rebellious, with programming that often goes against the grain," Locarno's artistic director Frederic Maire says. "We have total freedom in our selection."

Indeed, the Locarno fest isn't tied down by local distribution restraints like other festivals. While many films screen in Berlin, Venice or Cannes to coincide with the release dates in their respective territories, the Swiss market is so small that programmers are free to choose their lineup without consideration for local distribution requirements.

"It's a Swiss festival in an Italian-speaking region in a country whose official language is French and most of the audience is German-speaking, so the fest doesn't have a very national identity," Maire says. "The big difference between Locarno and Cannes or Venice is that masses of public audiences come here. A film that hosts its world premiere at the Grande Piazza (will screen for) 8,000 people -- that's a real audience. It allows a permanent dialogue between the filmmakers and their audiences. When a competition film receives a 10-minute standing ovation from a real public audience and not just industry professionals, that has a major impact."

"Locarno is known for screening a 'cinema of discovery' -- there are many buyers who are interested in coming to discover new titles and new talents," adds Nadia Dresti, the head of the fest's industry office.

Despite the lack of a real international market, Locarno organizers are making an effort to turn the festival into a must-attend industry event for global dealmakers. To that end, Locarno's Industry Office has planned several industry screenings for the fest's first weekend, and will give buyers a maximum opportunity to see films in selection during the second part of the week in case they missed them the first time around.

Additionally, this year Locarno has partnered with Europa Distribution to foster exchanges between Europa's network of 70 independent distributors in 19 European countries and producers whose films will screen at the fest.

Bolstering dealmaking makes sense because Locarno has steadily distinguished itself in recent years as a sales-agent magnet for titles that arrive without international sellers. Of the 18 films in last year's competition, 14 films were still searching for an international sales agent when they screened at the fest and 10 of them found sellers during the course of the festival. Fortissimo Films snapped up last year's Leopard d'Or winner -- the Mexican entry "Parque Via" -- and five of the 18 competition titles signed international distribution deals.

"I want to create a real virtual market here," Dresti declares.

Locarno also allows producers, directors and international sales reps to really get a taste of their European audiences, who often interact with visiting directors and producers, a marked contrast to tightly controlled events like Cannes and Venice.

"We're very lucky because the festival falls during vacation time and its relaxed nature tends to attract people," Maire says.

Locarno's selection isn't mutually exclusive with other festivals. Double-dipping is allowed, meaning films that host world premieres in Locarno often go on to screen as North American premieres in Toronto in September or in France at the Deauville American Film Festival. The Locarno-Toronto duo is a popular one; Locarno is often used as a platform for European promotion of a film, which then moves onto Toronto for promotion in the U.S. and Canadian markets.

Which begs the question: Can Locarno really forge a new identity as an essential stop on the fest circuit when there is so much cross pollination between festivals?

"As a sales agent, Locarno can be a great audience tester, but also a first test for buyers, even if there aren't enough of them present," says Eric Lagesse, president of Pyramide Films. "It's tough for a sales agent to have a film in Locarno that isn't picked up in Toronto's selection where every buyer in the world is in town."

In typically iconoclastic fashion, Locarno's programmers refuse to be bogged down by cultural politics that play into the selection of most other major film fests.

"I don't think a festival should be a geographical lesson that needs to respect a national balance," Maire says. "Our goal is to defend the quality of our films, so we try to avoid geo-strategic choices. Usually, the lineup balances itself out on its own."