Venice Film Festival Emerges as Deal Market: "It's More Like Toronto in the Old Days"

Lol Crawley/Cinetic Media; Courtesy of TIFF
High-profile titles in the Venice lineup looking for distribution deals include Brady Corbet's 'Vox Lux' (left) and Zhang Yimou's 'Shadow.'

Hollywood buyers are descending on the Lido in search of the next big thing: "We're seeing more domestic distributors."

The endless crass stands that blight Cannes’ Marche du Film or the soulless booths of the AFM’s Loews Hotel are nowhere in evidence at Venice. Don’t expect many one-sheets, flyers or promo reels either — Venice isn’t about the mass market and in fact has no official market at all. The world’s oldest (and still most expensive) film festival is all about exclusivity.

“There’s actually not that many buyers that go, but the quality of the buyers is something else. It’s the film lovers, the cineastes that go to Venice,” says Alex Walton of production and sales group Bloom, which is handling world sales on Venice titles Dragged Across Concrete, the actioner starring Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn; and Shadow, the period martial arts epic from Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou. "I've had the best experience in Venice with selling films that need a bit more consideration, a bit more time."

Andreas Rothbauer, of Berlin-based sales outfit Picture Tree International, admits that if you don't have a film 
in Venice, "it might not be worth it to go. Buyers are really there to watch movies, not do business." But with good festival buzz, there is money to be made on the Lido. "It's a different feel than in Cannes or AFM," says Rothbauer. "There are no back-to-back meetings. It's more like Toronto 
in the old days, where you'd meet people on the street. You'd have a coffee and maybe do a deal."

In place of a Loews Hotel or the 
Marche du Film, Venice has the Excelsior, the luxury hotel where everyone ends 
up eventually. The business that's done in Venice is done there at breakfast, on the terrace facing the water, or between cocktails at the sprawling hotel bar. "It's all 
very informal," says Walton, approvingly.

The deals that do happen are mainly 
for Europe — and continental Europe at that. Few Brits make the trip, and only a handful of big Japanese or Chinese buyers bother. U.S. distributors have also been scarce, though they're starting to turn up in greater numbers as the careful curation of festival director Alberto Barbera — with premieres that please both audiences and the Academy — attracts more Hollywood dealmakers.

"It's not a typical marketplace, but we are seeing more and more domestic distributors looking to Venice films to break 
through in the awards conversation," says D.J. Gugenheim, president of production at Andrew Lauren Productions, whose Vox Lux, starring Natalie Portman, will have its world premiere in competition, with Sierra/Affinity handling sales duties.

Vox Lux is not alone. Several Venice competition titles, including Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale (FilmNation) and Laszlo Nemes' Sunset (Playtime) are still scouting for a U.S. distributor.

One of this year's hottest titles, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Never Look Away, was snatched up by Sony Pictures Classics in a multi-
territory deal just ahead of the festival. SPC grabbed the German psychological thriller for six territories, including North America.

Venice isn't for everybody. With fewer films in the official lineup, the focus of 
the critics and cinephile buyers attending can be all the more intense. But if 
a film works in Venice, it can be the ideal platform, both to kick off awards season and drive international sales.

"Venice is ideally timed for awards season and the market, if you can go Venice to Toronto or Venice to Telluride to Toronto," says Beta Cinema CEO Dirk Schuerhoff. "If you come out of Venice with great reviews and maybe a few big deals, you go into Toronto with that extra bit of momentum."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.