In 2012 Venice chief Alberto Barbera began a campaign to grow Hollywood’s presence on the Lido. The festival had always been an A-list arthouse event, but Barbera went to U.S. studios and leading American producers to explain his project to make Venice a key awards season launch-pad. Regular visits to LA continue to bear fruit and he has hailed this year’s crop as a ‘once in a decade lineup’.
Venice’s 75th edition hasn’t been without controversy, however, including a pre-festival outcry from Italian exhibitors over Netflix’s presence at the festival and widespread consternation over the dismal number of women directors in Competition: one out of 21.
We sat down with the festival director at Venice’s halfway point [Sunday morning] to discuss potential Oscar candidates, the lack of women directors, Netflix, Suspiria and rival A-list festival Cannes.
How is the festival going from your perspective?
Very well. People seem happy. Most of the films have been very well-liked so I’m happy. Just a little tired this morning.
You’ve got the Midas touch. Venice has hosted the Best Picture Oscar winner three of the last four years. Multi-Oscar winners The Shape Of Water and Three Billboards both started out here last year, while La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge and Arrival did the year before. Do you see a Best Picture winner here this year?
It’s always unpredictable. Nobody expected Birdman to get the prize, for example, but it happened. There are a number here this year which could be in the running. So far I think First Man and Roma are favorites among critics. These two could be Best Picture nominees.
Were you happy with the response to Suspiria? It was always going to polarize.
Of course it was. I told Luca that from the beginning after seeing the rough cut in April. Most people who are disappointed are so because it isn’t an obvious remake. I think it’s Luca Guadagnino’s most ambitious, complex and daring film. It’s a multi-layered movie.
Was there any anxiety about its reception? The Italian media has had a complicated relationship with Guadagnino…
I think they changed their attitude after the success of Call Me By Your Name. Luca is very direct. That has partly been the issue. In some situations he likes to provoke. He doesn’t like to compromise and there were some problems with journalists. I think the situation is very different now.
Were Dario and Asia Argento invited to the premiere? I didn’t see them.
No. Actually, I knew Luca was in touch with Dario. I thought he would have invited him. So we [the festival] didn’t. It probably didn’t happen. I’m sorry for that. But I don’t know if Dario would have accepted or not. [Amazon has subsequently told us that they and Luca Guadagnino did invite Dario Argento but that he was unable to attend due to personal circumstances. They hope he will be able to attend a later premiere]
It doesn’t sound like he has entirely given his blessing to the movie…
Not entirely. I’ve read different statements. One was positive, the other less so. It’s not entirely clear.
What are the highlights for the second week of the festival?
There will be a lot of interesting movies. There will be some surprises because we have more films from less well-known directors. I hope we will keep up the positive response and energy.
Pre-festival, Italian cinema associations strongly criticized Netflix’s presence at the festival. Did you talk to the local industry or Netflix about those concerns?
I didn’t discuss anything with the industry. I don’t think Netflix did either. There are rumors about negative responses from exhibitors but we don’t have the same laws as in France. Sooner or later the cinemas will realize that the platforms are here to stay. They are a big part of the future. Cinemas must offer a different type of service to audiences. There will be more and more platforms. SVOD won’t kill theaters but you need to find a new way.
Do you think Cannes will change its Netflix stance?
Yes. They made some strange decisions this year such as the press screening change (we have an embargo which seems to be working ) and the Netflix situation. I think that Cannes will try to solve this problem with Netflix. I think they have been too strict to defend a form of cinema that belongs to the past. I agree the best way to see a movie is on the big screen but I don’t think the big screen experience is going anywhere. However, we do need to work to educate the younger generations about cinema.
The lack of women directors in Competition has been a hot button topic. You’ve personally come under fire and, according to your tweets, that seems to have stung you…[the interview was done before Jacques Audiard’s press conference comments]
It’s a major problem. It’s a problem of access. There are many more women in the industry today than in the past. But it’s true there’s only a small amount of women directors. We got around 2000 submissions in total and only 23% were from women directors. The situation isn’t acceptable at all but it’s not up to the festival director to change that situation. The industry is a male industry and there is prejudice. Many producers and financiers don’t trust women, for example. They think they can’t control a set. That’s a mistake.
So you won’t be making a conscious decision to select more women directors next year?
No. I think the only criteria is the strength of the film itself. As Guillermo [jury president Guillermo del Toro] said, the only thing that counts is what’s in the frame. The gender doesn’t matter. I won’t change my criteria, which is only based on the quality of the film. There’s not much I can do. Quotas won’t help. They can be offensive or humiliating. But we signed a diversity pledge on Friday. We can try to do our best but what’s in our power is limited. Two of the three movies we financed this year in our Biennale College are by women. Not because they are women, because they are good films. This is the way to proceed.
A local director wearing a ‘Weinstein Is Innocent’ t-shirt on the red carpet doesn’t help to dispel the notion that Venice and Italy have a problem. What did you make of that stunt?
I saw that. It was a stupid move. Only the justice can decide if Weinstein is guilty or not. MeToo and other movements underline that there is a huge problem. At the same time, I also think we can go too far the other way. It’s not fair to decide in 24 hours if a person is guilty.
You have two more years on your contract. Would you like to stay on beyond that or are you only allowed to serve two consecutive terms?
There isn’t such a rule. It depends on the board and Biennale President. But their contracts expire next year so we will have a new board and President in 2020. The President is appointed by the Italian Minister of Culture. It’s impossible to predict.
A leading Italian producer told me last week he thinks Venice is now the world’s number one film festival…
Ha [laughs]. That scares me…
…so with that in mind are you planning any significant changes next year?
We are still working on the Casino building renovation. It will take two more years. We want a new theater on the third floor with 500-600 seats. But we’ve undergone a lot of renovation and innovation in recent years. VR, the Sala Web, new locations etc We need to consolidate. It has been a seven year journey to get Venice to where it is today.