Venice Film Fest’s Alberto Barbera On “Huge Uncertainty” In Planning Event, Building Lineup; Addresses Hollywood Absence

Alberto Barbera

In an introduction to the Venice Film Festival lineup announced this morning in Rome, Alberto Barbera, commented, “The winter of our dismay turned into a springtime of anxiety, and then slipped slowly into a summer marked by uncertainty and fear over a fraught future.” The fest’s director later spoke with Deadline about the process — and challenges — leading up to today’s unveiling of what’s to come at the first major international film gathering since the coronavirus pandemic began; as well as a greatly-reduced presence of flashy Hollywood movies which have become a staple of the Lido event.

The selection, which does have some Hollywood elements, including Searchlight’s anticipated Nomadland starring Frances McDormand, has been met with positive response since this morning’s press conference revealed a strong global outlook whose program “will be a confirmation of the vibrancy of contemporary film, entrusted to an extremely interesting generational turnover.” Notably, there’s the “female component,” which Barbera remarked had previously been limited to “embarrassing percentiles.” For the 77th edition of the world’s oldest film festival, eight out of 18 movies in competition are directed by women — the most significant number ever — with choices made “exclusively on the basis of their quality and not as a result of gender protocols.”

Still, and overall, Barbera — who has reinvigorated Venice over the past eight years, making it the go-to awards season launchpad — told Deadline, “The fact that we had to work under huge uncertainty,” was the major difficulty during the months since the pandemic began, and even until last night as he put the finishing touches on the roster.

As COVID spiked early on, and notably in Italy, the main concern was whether or not the Lido event could go forward. Said Barbera, “Until the beginning of May, we were not sure that it would have been possible to have the festival in place in Venice. Then, when we realized it was in a way possible, we were asking ourselves how many things we could invite considering all the safety measures. It looked quite doubtful, we were thinking about maybe 25 films, but we said that’s not enough to make such a huge investment in terms of organization and economy and the cost of the festival. Then gradually, we became more confident that the festival could take place and we could invite more films.”

June brought with it a further sense of comfort for the organizers, but “from the other side it was extremely difficult because of course we received a lot of submissions from all over the world — more or less the usual amount — but the uncertainty was regarding getting confirmation from some titles. It was really sort of stop-and-go. We were more confident one day, then more pessimistic the following day, then we got confirmation, then we didn’t know what to do,” Barbera mused.

Some films were only confirmed last night, and some others are still awaiting confirmation. Barbera said earlier today that indeed there may be titles added, but told Deadline that the “worst part” of pulling things together has been the lack of clarity. “Working under these circumstances is not easy.”

Despite a large Hollywood presence across his tenure, with movie theaters still largely closed around the world and amid shifting release dates or postponements for studio titles, “it was a nightmare,” lamented Barbera who nevertheless said he understands the studios’ position. “I know a lot of films were not available because they postponed the release date for one month or maybe one year, but the quality of the program is really very high. I am very satisfied, very happy.”

Pre-pandemic, Barbera said it looked as though a lot of Hollywood movies would be ready for Venice. He called it a “long list of titles,” but didn’t feel it was “fair” to name all that were missed for this edition. “This is an exceptional year. We never went through such an incredible situation like the pandemic. I really hope that we won’t be forced to repeat the same experience in the future.”

Barbera added, “The industry cannot afford another year of lockdown or postponing releases when the theaters will really reopen and need films to attract audiences. I hope that the festivals of the fall will be a strong sign of optimism and a restart for everybody. We need to get back to a certain state of normality. We can keep social distancing and afford to have some safety measures to observe in the next months, but we need to get back to theaters, absolutely.”

While attendance levels from Europe are expected to be “more or less the same” on the Lido come September, because of travel restrictions, Barbera said, “We know people from certain countries won’t be able to come — the United States, South America, China, India…” We already know that the talent from Searchlight’s competition entry, Nomadland, which includes director Chloé Zhao and star Frances McDormand, will attend virtually. Indeed, Barbera indicated this morning that folks unable to make it to the Lido “will be able to take advantage of the resources of communications technology to ensure the promotion of their movies.”

The Lido event is collaborating with the other fall festivals in a show of solidarity, notably screening a simultaneous world premiere of Nomadland with Toronto on September 11. But what about the tie-up with Cannes that never seemed to materialize? Barbera, who is a good friend of Cannes chief Thierry Frémaux, told Deadline, “We had weekly conversations on the situation and possibility of collaboration and came up with different ideas. Every time, that changed because the global situation was changing. We kept on trying to understand what we could do together, but at a certain point realized that it was not worth it to share the same selection because of the changing situation.”

Frémaux, Barbera said, “decided to go on with the label of Cannes 2020 and I realized that there was a lot of new things coming in June and July. If there was a way to make place for completely new films from what Thierry seleected, it was probably better. So, I said ‘Those films in your selection will travel to other festivals, and we will support 60 more films. And, in this way we enlarge the number of films that can get promotion from the festivals’.”

Nevertheless, Barbera hinted that there may indeed be a Cannes element on the Lido. “We are still discussing a project that will be done in Venice. We will have the decision in a couple of weeks.”

Barbera’s mandate is up after this year’s Venice — an announcement by parent org La Biennale will be made in October as to the future. While he wouldn’t say if he expects to return, he did laugh knowingly when I suggested it would be a shame to go out on such a wild, unprecedented year.

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