Five Takeaways From the 2019 Venice Film Festival

Joker Still 2 - Warner Bros. Entertainment Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

From Warner Bros.' 'Joker' triumph and Roman Polanski's shocking win to (limited) progress on gender parity, the 2019 Venice International Film Festival turned up a few surprises.

Say what you will about the Venice International Film Festival, but it knows how to put on a show. Saturday's award ceremony produced a pair of proper shockers — with Roman Polanski winning the runner-up Silver Lion for An Officer and a Spy and Joker, the first-ever comic book adaptation to play in Venice, stunning pundits by winning the top-prize Golden Lion. As industry attention now shifts to Toronto, The Hollywood Reporter takes a moment to reflect on what we learned at Venice this year and what events on the Lido told us about trends in the film industry as a whole. Our five takeaways from Venice 2019:

Warner Bros.' Joker Gambit Paid Off

Bringing a studio-backed superhero movie to the world's oldest film festival was a risky move. Bad reviews out of Venice for Todd Phillip's Joker could have killed the growing buzz for Warner Bros.' ambitious supervillain origin tale ahead of its Oct. 4 release. But Phillip's dark take on the comic book clown, and Joaquin Phoenix's chilling performance as a ostracized loser pushed to the breaking point, wowed the Lido crowds. Few, however, expected Venice's jury to pick Joker for the festival's top honor, the Golden Lion, a win that sets the film up for potential Oscar glory — and makes Warner Bros.' decision to bow the movie in Venice look nothing short of genius.

Polanski's Silver Lion Win Shows U.S./European Divide

If Joker was Venice's biggest awards shock, the Silver Lion honor for Polanski came as a close second. Despite the scandal surrounding Polanski — the director remains a fugitive from U.S. justice since pleading guilty to the statutory rape of a 13-year-old child back in 1978 — it didn't stop Venice from embracing his latest film, the French period drama An Officer and a Spy. The movie, about the notorious anti-Semitic Dreyfus affair, split U.S. and European critics but won over the Venice jury. It remains to be seen, however, if audiences will be taken with it. World Sales group Playtime has inked deals for the film with multiple territories, including Spain, Japan and Scandinavia, but An Officer and a Spy remains unsold in several key markets, including the U.S..

Netflix Is Winning Its War With Exhibitors

Venice has been the frontline for the battle between Netflix and theatrical exhibitors upset over the streaming giant's disruption of traditional distribution models. When Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, a Netflix title, won Venice's Golden Lion last year, the response, from exhibitors worldwide, was outrage. But while the Cannes Film Festival has bowed to pressure and banned Netflix films from its competition lineup, Venice has ignored such complaints, this year picking three films from the streamer: Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (both in competition) and David Michod’s The King (out of competition). All were well received in Venice and, in sharp contrast to years past, the Netflix logo was greeted by cheers, not boos, at festival screenings. Exhibitors are still mad — the European group UNIC protested the inclusion of the films in Venice, as did Italian industry groups ANEC and ANEM — but Netflix has made no concessions to their demands for proper theatrical releases for its movies. Even Martin Scorsese's big-budget epic The Irishman will get only a limited, awards-qualifying theatrical run before going out online. The Netflix war isn't over yet, but judging from the experience in Venice, the streamer seems to be winning.

Venice Is Paying Lip-Service to Gender Parity

After years of ignoring, or dismissing, pushes for a better gender balance at Venice, for the first time this year, the festival at least acknowledged the problem, holding a two-hour seminar on gender parity and inclusion. For many, however, the gesture fell far short of real progress. Paolo Baratta, president of the film festival's umbrella organization, La Biennale, opened the seminar rejecting any claim that Venice was biased, despite picking only two films directed by women — Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth and Haifaa Al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate — in the 21-strong competition lineup. Festival director Alberto Barbera also repeated his claim that "quality, not gender" remained the main criterion for selection. But Venice did, for the first time, report actual figures, noting that between 22 percent to 24 percent of the film submissions to Venice this year were helmed by women and, while only 9.5 percent of competition titles were female-led, across all sections of the festival the figure was a more respectable 25 percent.

Venice's Oscar Hot Streak Continues, But Could Be Cooling

Last year, Venice served up Roma, The Favourite, First Man and A Star Is Born, kicking off Oscar campaigns that led to award wins for all four. This year, Joker dominated the awards conversation, but Baumbach’s divorce drama Marriage Story also earned plaudits and early buzz for its leads, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, as did Soderbergh’s financial crimes farce The Laundromat for Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman. Elsewhere, the awards pickings were slim. James Grey's space drama Ad Astra, starring Brad Pitt, divided U.S. and European critics, as did potential international contenders Ema, from Jackie and No director Pablo Larrain, and Vaclav Marhoul's The Painted Bird, starring Stellan Skarsgard, Harvey Keitel and Barry Pepper, alongside newcomer Petr Kotlar. And don't expect much awards love for An Officer and a Spy outside Europe. Polanski remains persona non grata in Hollywood and was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last year.