In a late deal sealed just on the eve of the Venice Film Festival's opening ceremony, Rome sales outfit Adriana Chiesa Enterprises picked up international distribution rights to two Italian films: Piergiorgio Gay's competition title La Forza Del Passato and Spiro Scimone and Francesco Sframeli's Due Amici, Italy's contender in Critics Week.

But as the festival kicks off with the eagerly-awaited world premiere of Frida, Miramax's drama about the passionate relationship between Frida Kahlo and fellow Mexican artist Diego Rivera, industry insiders will be waiting to see whether the festival can engender more than a host of Italian deals and hot air.

Venice's new artistic director Moritz de Hadeln raised the temperature this week with an interview in Milan daily Corriere della Sera. He boomed that the festival's top prize, the Golden Lion, "has lost its authority [and] no longer has any value and counts for nothing in the marketplace". None too surprisingly he was smartly rebuffed in the nation's press and got a dressing down from culture minister Giuliano Urbani.

Another De Hadeln move which has also caused a general outcry is his decision to remove Venice's traditional long red-carpet runway which gives the public a chance to spot the stars. Instead, the Lido's divas will be driven the 50 metres separating the Excelsior Hotel and the Casino in festival-sponsoring cars and dropped off for a brisk photo-op before being whisked off inside.

Stars making an appearance tonight and over the weekend include Salma Hayek, Julie Taymor, Alfred Molina, Gwyneth Paltrow and Sofia Loren, in town for the first time in 20 years to accompany her son Edoardo Ponti's feature debut, Between Strangers.

On safer ground, De Hadeln is one of many who believe Venice needs a more commercial focus if it is to regain, in his words, "the prestige it has lost to Berlin and Cannes" - which both have A-list markets. As such, he has established the Venice Screenings, which will enable buyers to view in private screening rooms all the festival's films and hopefully seal deals in a special garden area at the back of the Casino. Rather than a market, says de Hadeln, the Screenings are intended as a way of providing "much-needed support for the industry."