Venice Boss Alberto Barbera on Hosting the First Post-Lockdown Festival

Alberto Barbera - Getty - H 2018
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty

Venice Festival Director Alberto Barbera

"I hope this will be a restart for everybody...the beginning of new hope for the film industry."

The global film industry has a new start date.

On Sept. 2, when Alberto Barbera rolls out the red carpet for the 77th Venice International Film Festival, it will mark the beginning of the post-COVID-19 era.

No one really knows what's coming but it seems fitting that Venice, the world's first film festival, is the one tasked with rebooting cinema in the wake of the global pandemic.

Barbera will present a slightly stripped-down festival this year but it will still be a proper A-list event with 18 competition titles including two studio-backed movies — Sony's The World to Come from director Mona Fastvold featuring Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck, Katherine Waterston and Christopher Abbott and Searchlight Pictures' Nomadland with Frances McDormand and David Strathairn — amid an impressive lineup of new international arthouse features.

"It is an extraordinary festival in an extraordinary time," Barbera told The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday, shortly after announcing this year's line up. "But we this will be a restart for everybody...the beginning of new hope for the film industry."

Congratulations on pulling together a film festival in the current climate. How did the new reality of COVID-19 impact your preparations and your selection for Venice 77?

Of course we were working under very difficult conditions. It was total uncertainty all the time. Until maybe mid-May we didn't know if the festival would take place at all. Most of the festivals were cancelled so thought it might be impossible to have a festival  in September. It was only as the situation in Italy began to improve that we thought it might happen. But then the safety protocols initially meant we could only invite maybe 25-30 films. That wouldn't have been enough. Only at the beginning of June did I become more optimistic that it could be done.

A lot of long-expected films for the fall were not ready in time or were postponed to next year. But we got a lot of submission from around the world and the quality was very high. So I knew we would have enough titles. I've very satisfied with our selection this year.

Our course there are fewer American movies than usual but that's to be expected given the conditions.

Will American talent be able to travel to the festival? At the moment U.S. citizens entering the European Union have to go into quarantine.

At the moment it is impossible because of the quarantine. We will have to wait. The situation could change and I'm still quite confident that we'll be able to welcome some American delegations. Because the situation in Italy is getting better and better day after day. The number of infections is quite limited at the moment the situation is under control.

We are taking a risk of course holding the festival but I think it's very important to give a sign of optimism and show to the world that a film festival can take place under these conditions. Venice should be a restart for everybody. The beginning of a new hope. No one, especially the film industry, can afford to stay in lockdown much longer. Theaters need to reopen soon and they need to get good films to attract audience back again.

Venice under your direction has positioned itself as the kick-off event for awards season. What role do you see it playing this year?

It is an exceptional year under exceptional conditions. Most of the films that would be contenders for the next Oscar season are still waiting to see when they can be released. So it is extremely difficult. But were are lucky in that there are a lot of good films around. The quality of the festival is there. I think everyone should make an effort in this moment to take the risk of re-opening, to take the risk of releasing good films. We cannot expect that in a year's time, after months of streaming films at home, that audiences will go back to the theater. We need a restart now.

Is that why you agreed to cooperate with the other fall festivals on your selection? You are sharing the world premiere of films such as Nomadland with the Toronto and New York film festivals.

When we started to go into lockdown all the festivals started talking to each other about what we should do. We knew we couldn't stick to our usual competition against the other. The common words were solidarity and collaboration. Solidarity with the film makers and the film companies and collaboration with each other. It is one of the positive things to come out of this crisis: that the festivals are not there to serve our egos but to support filmmakers and films in general. I hope that will stay in the future.

Why didn't a collaboration with Cannes work out? There was a suggestion of Venice screening some of the films [Cannes artistic director] Thierry Frémaux picked for his Cannes 2020 Official Selection label, which will tour international events.

I'm a good friend of Thierry and we talked every day, coming up with different ideas and different proposals.  But the situation kept changing and at some point we realized there were enough good films available to fit two different selections. So  Thierry went out with his Cannes 2020 selection and I made my own selection for Venice. We were able to enlarge the number of films that will get the attention and will travel. That's better than having just one selection.

But we are still discussing doing something together. We have a specific project that we will announce in the coming weeks. Thierry will be in Venice this year and we will do something together.

It wasn't the focus of your press conference today but Venice this year achieved almost perfect gender parity in its competition line-up. Of the 18 competition films, eight were directed by women. That's a huge increase on previous years. You did this without any sort of quota?

Yes. We didn't pick the films based on the gender of the director and we didn't have many more films submitted that were by women directors. I think it was about 22-23 percent of the total, similar to previous years. But there were many good, excellent films by women this year. It might just be coincidence but I hope this is a good sign for the entire film industry for the future. I'm extremely happy about it.

This will be your last year as director of the Venice film festival. How would you like to be remembered?

I don't know. I hope it will be remembered that I succeeded in raising the profile of the festival with the quality of our selection.

And maybe that you helped re-start the film industry after the pandemic?

Yes, that would be great! Why not?

This interview was edited for length and clarity.