Venice's Post-Lockdown Festival Experiment a Success

Venice 2020_Tilda Swinton_Pedro Almodovar
Vittorio Zunino Celotto Getty Images

Venice's risky move, holding the first international film festival since the COVID-19 lockdown, pays off. "It’s been pretty flawless, quite frankly."

It was a huge risk, holding a major international film festival in the midst of a global pandemic, but Venice pulled it off. After 10 days of screenings and premieres, mask-wearing audiences and socially-distanced red carpets, the 77th Venice Film Festival can claim to have succeeded in getting the indie film circuit moving again.

Yes, there were fewer stars and fewer (read: no) tentpole titles. But films were shown, paparazzi flashbulbs popped, and press junkets got done. There were even some distribution deals signed along the way (see below).

Fans couldn't really get near the red carpet —Venice put up a wall to prevent a crush of autograph-seekers —but they did their best, peaking between cracks and around corners to catch a glimpse of Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, or Andrew Garfield.

"There are certainly fewer [wannabees] wandering around the Excelsior, so practically it's much easier to get about and get stuff done," said veteran PR exec Charles McDonald, who handled press on Venice competition titles Miss Marx and Never Gonna Snow Again, speaking about the pleasant lack of crowds in front of the Hotel Excelsior, the traditional hub of festival activity. New hygiene measures, including mandatory temperature checks at all entrances to festival grounds and enforced mask-wearing, have been "pretty strict [but] pretty painless," he noted. "It’s been pretty flawless, quite frankly. I think if Venice can do it, then it seems to me that there’s no excuse for the likes of Berlin and Cannes."

Berlin Festival co-heads Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian were among the festival bosses who come away from Venice "inspired and energized," and with a possible model to follow. 

"We are very pleased to see it all can still happen – filmmakers walking the red carpet, the audience watching films, finally meeting colleagues from different countries again – the things which belong to the heart of a festival," they said. "Best of all: it still works!"

Venice even managed to secure visa exemptions for a small, but significant contingent of international execs and talent, allowing the casts of Gia Coppola’s  Mainstream, which premiered in Venice's Horizons, and Kyle Rankin's out-of-competition title Run Hide Fight, to attend. U.S. visitors had to take multiple Covid-19 tests but, if results were negative, could forgo the 14-day quarantine currently required for American visitors to Italy.

"I think we were all a bit apprehensive about coming, about being among groups of people again, I wasn't even sure I wanted to sit through the screening of our film," said Fred Berger, who produced Mainstream. "But everything was incredibly organized and disciplined, without feeling constrained. Actually, it felt oddly liberating, because you felt safe and could enjoy yourself."

The lack of big studio or Netflix titles this year —Venice 2019 included Warner Bros' Joker and Netflix's Marriage Story in its competition line-up—meant less pre-Oscar hype, but more space for smaller, more off-beat movies. Among the surprises at this year's festival were breakout performances from Hobbs & Shaw actress Vanessa Kirby and Stranger Things' Alec Utgoff in their first lead roles. Kirby as a mother mourning the loss of her child in Pieces of a Woman, and Utgoff as a mysterious Ukrainian masseuse in the Polish title Never Gonna Snow Again.

And there was some pre-Oscar buzz, most keenly for Regina King' directorial debut, One Night In Miami, which screened out of competition. The drama, adapted by Kemp Power from his own stage hit, is inspired by a real-life meeting in 1964 between Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. Following its rapturous reception in Venice, One Night in Miami is already being discussed as a frontrunner for best picture. Venice closed with another strong awards contender, Chloé Zhao's Nomadland, which stars two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand as a woman who, after losing everything in the Great Recession, becomes a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.

There was even business being done on the Lido, a welcome sign for an indie industry battered by months of Covid-imposed lockdown.

Sony Pictures Classics picked up worldwide rights, outside of Italy, for Luca Guadagnino’s documentary Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams, which premiered out of competition in Venice. The doc covers the life of fashion icon Salvatore Ferragamo. 

Christos Nikou's debut feature Apples, a favorite from Venice's Horizons section, sold across Europe, with Paris-based Alpha Violet closing deals with Curzon for the UK and Ireland, Madman for Australia, Lucky Red for Italy, and Feelgood for Greece, among many others. The deadpan drama is set in an analog world where a pandemic is causing a wave of amnesia. CAA is repping U.S. rights to the film. 

Beta Cinema unveiled a series of sales on another Horizons title, Uberto Pasolini's Nowhere Special,  closing out much of the non-English-speaking world with deals with ARP in France, Kino Films in Japan, Icon Film Distribution in Australian/New Zealand, and Great Movies in Brazil among many others. James Norton stars in the drama, about a 35-year-old single father trying to give his four-year-old son a normal life after the mother has left them both. 

The Match Factory closed several key deals for Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert’s Venice competition title Never Gonna Snow Again, with Picturehouse Entertainment taking the surreal social satire in the U.K. and Ireland, Real Fiction snatching German rights and I Wonder scoring the movie for the Italian market. Stranger Things actor Alec Utgoff stars as a mysterious Ukrainian masseuse who tends to the needs —physical and spiritual—of the quietly desperate residents of a wealthy gated community in Poland. 

"Films like ours need festivals like Venice, otherwise we don't exist," said Szumowska, who said the success of the first post-pandemic fest was a hopeful sign for the indie industry. 

"I'm very optimistic," noted Claude-Eric Poiroux, general director of arthouse exhibitors body Europa Cinemas, "Venice shows the world festivals are possible again, and we see from theaters that are re-opening that audiences are coming back."

The big stars that did make it to Venice struck a similar tone, with the likes of Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, and Spanish director Pedro Almodovar hailing the 2020 festival as the point when the global film industry hit the restart button.

"The cinema is not going through the best period, but that is why we have to invite people to go to the cinema," Almodovar said the Venice press conference for his short film The Human Voice, starring Swinton.

Added Italian documentary director Gianfranco Rosi, whose Notturno premiered in competition: "Considering everything, I think [Venice Artistic Director] Alberto Barbera and his team have done an extremely courageous act of putting together a festival during this moment. It was very courageous for them to say, we’re going to do the festival, no matter what. There are fewer people, but it’s more intimate. Most of the people are here because they have to be here, which is a beautiful feeling."

Alex Ritman contributed to this report.