Venice Film Festival Chief Alberto Barbera On ‘Dune’ & Kristen Stewart Oscar Credentials, Rave Reviews, The Ticketing Snafu & Week 2 Surprise Movies

EXCLUSIVE: The Venice Film Festival and its festival director Alberto Barbera have become awards whisperers.

Over the past decade, Venice has hosted the launches of such awards magnets as Nomadland [co-launched with TIFF], Joker, A Star Is Born, Marriage Story, The Shape Of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, The Favourite, Roma, La La Land, Arrival, Spotlight, Birdman and Gravity.

We sat down with festival head Barbera at the event’s mid-way point to discuss the hits so far, the surprises to come, why there have been so many rave reviews and Covid protocols and testing. The festival hasn’t all been plain sailing. We also get into the ticketing problems that have been the source of so many headaches for journalists and organizers.

How are you feeling about the festival so far?

I’m extremely pleased with how happy people seem to be about the lineup and about being back in Venice. That said, we still have limitations to deal with. The 50% cinema capacity due to Covid restrictions is a huge problem when we have twice as many delegates as 2020. Last year we had around 6,000 accredited guests. This year we have 10,500. This has created problems with access to tickets and the reservation system. We didn’t have any of those issues last year.

Could you have put on more screenings?

It was impossible. We are using all the theatres we have on the Lido, Venice and Maestre. There isn’t a single extra screen available. This is the problem…

But isn’t this a supply and demand issue rather than a tech issue?

I’m not sure. Why can’t a few hundred people try to reserve a seat at the same time? People are working like crazy to try and resolve the problem. It is slightly better now and should get a little better during the week.

In terms of the success of this edition, I wouldn’t say it has been a complete surprise because we knew the lineup was strong, and we knew there was a willingness to come back to film festivals, for people to get out and about again. But we didn’t expect so many people to attend the festival. But this is not an explanation for the failure of the reservation system, which is unexpected.

I can’t remember such a positive reaction from critics to so many movies at the outset of a festival. It’s largely here, but I’ve also noticed it out of Telluride. What do you put that down to? Is it simply a case of a happy coincidence and great quality movies? Or are other factors feeding in such as delays to big movies or critics being excited to be back at major festivals and wanting to support independent cinema? Do you think the thirst for social media clicks or desire to kickstart awards buzz is a factor in so many raves?

No, I think this is an exceptional year in terms of quality. I can’t remember in the last decade being in the same situation. We saw so many good movies during the selection process that we didn’t know how to handle it. We had to turn away some movies that in a normal year we would have been happy to invite. It’s an exceptional year. But why? I’m not completely sure. Of course there are some films that have been held back but that still doesn’t’ explain the high level of quality. There are directors here who have made their best film in many years.

Two of the movies that went very well with critics on your first two days were Netflix movies: Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand Of God. Have you seen an evolution in the quality of Netflix movies over the years?

I think generally speaking everyone is betting on quality. We know that the platforms are taking a bigger role in production. When we emerge from the pandemic we will face a completely new and different landscape. The relationship between platforms and the industry will be the opposite of what it has been in the past. There are so many platforms now headed by major players in the market. Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney, Comcast, Warner Bros, they are all betting on streaming…

You haven’t had an Apple film yet have you?

Not this year. We almost had one last year [Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks] but they decided not to come in the end…

And you still benefit from the Cannes-Netflix split, of course…

Of course, absolutely we do…

Netflix are big supporters of moviemaking. But it’s still somewhat ironic to see that many posters around the festival are for Netflix and Sky Cinema, which are home entertainment services…

Yeah, but what’s the difference between Netflix and any other major studio today? The difference is very small. In the future, the difference will disappear entirely. The Sorrentino and Jane Campion films will have a few weeks exclusive theatrical window. We can’t predict the landscape exactly but I think there’s a gain for everyone. The competition is in terms of content. A lot of money is being invested in a lot of different types of content. The consumers win too.

Netflix wants to feature prominently in the awards season race, of course, like all studios. You and Venice have become the awards whisperers over the last decade. What are the Best Picture contenders this year in your mind?

It’s hard to say, because there are a lot of good ones this year, many are in with a chance…

Do you think Dune is an Oscar contender?

I would be very surprised if it’s not among nominated films, for sure…

And Spencer star Kristen Stewart for Best Actress?

For sure, of course…

Could we see Paolo Sorrentino in the Best Foreign Language category? 

Definitely…

His new movie gives birth, potentially, to a new Italian star in the shape of 21 year-old actor Filippo Scotti (an Italian Timothée Chalamet, perhaps) …

[Laughs] Absolutely. There is a new generation of actors in Italy and a new generation of filmmakers. There is a process of renovation going on. We have five Italian films in Competition and each one is very different and there are a lot of new actors in these movies. They are movies that can travel abroad.

Yes, there is something of a youth wave in general at this festival. Chalamet, Zendaya, Scotti, Milena Smit, Anya Taylor-Joy, Benjamin Voisin, Jeon Jong-Seo, and others. It’s exciting…

It is, yes…

Penelope Cruz talked about the festival taking protocols seriously and the need to be respectful of them. I noticed that you and the actors are quite diligent about wearing masks while in the auditoria. That’s in contrast to Cannes, for example, where the festival was more relaxed about the talent and festival execs wearing masks in the cinemas at certain times. Was that a conscious decision?

Absolutely. We did the same last year and it was very much appreciated because people felt secure and safe. We’re not taking risks because we have a lot more people than last year. I wasn’t in Cannes so I can’t speak to that. I was closing my selection so couldn’t go. But I heard rumours that it was a little more relaxed in that sense.

Have you had any positive Covid tests so far at the festival?

Not one, that I’m aware of. There will be an update today [Monday]. I think there were two positive tests but they were false positives after a second test. The situation is very much under control. According to our research, 90% of the accredited guests are double vaccinated, which is higher than in the general population.

Can you give us a movie that might surprise us next week?

There will be a number. The Filipino movie by Erik Mattie On The Job: The Missing 8 will be a surprise to people. It’s on the Friday, same day as the Ridley Scott. Both films are quite long. You should also look out for Gabrielle Mainetti’s Freaks Out

Yes, I’ve heard some good buzz for the film from Italian journalists and industry I’ve spoken to…

Yes. It’s not a perfect film, let’s say, but the scope and ambition of the director is unbelievable. He’s a young filmmaker but the ambition is on a par with Spielberg, Fellini, Leone…He has done everything by himself. It was a long process shooting, editing, and he gathered the budget himself and it went over budget quite a bit. You may or may not like the movie – that’s down to personal taste – but you can’t not be impressed by the filmmaker and his approach.

There are a lot of talked-about movies. Given the quality and the growing buzz in recent years, do you feel like Venice is separating itself a little from other fall festivals?

A few years ago there was strong competition between Venice, Toronto, Telluride. Ten years ago Toronto was the most important date in the fall festival calendar. Now, I feel like there is a balance among the festivals. Maybe Venice is in an even better position because we come first and the amount of media we have from all over the world means we can offer a truly global platform, which is a great opportunity for the studios to gain reach internationally, not only in the North American market. I’m quite confident that Venice will maintain this position.

Last year you were rewarded with another four year term. What would you like to achieve in the next three editions?

It has been a long project. We began the work ten years ago when I came back to Venice. We wanted to change the profile and renovate the festival. In a way, we’ve succeeded in doing that. In the next three years we need to consolidate and make some improvements. With the increasing demand to be here, we would like to open two new theaters, one on the third floor of the Casino and another like the red cube we have in the garden. These will be in place for next year.

It would be nice to have the Classics strand back at the festival…

It will be back, providing the pandemic is gone…

And those great archive exhibitions about history of the festival…

Yes, we’d love to but it’s a question of space. We can’t use the Hotel Des Bains anymore due to some safety concerns with the structure. But we’re thinking about new locations.

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