EXCLUSIVE: In the wake of a turbulent first edition, Rome festival director vows cheaper tickets and fewer films in 2013, expects to be back for two more years.

“I think we’ve had a successful festival,” Rome Film Festival director Marco Mueller told Screen on Friday. “Successful in the sense that I wanted to test the possibility of a platform for very different film experiences, for both public and industry, to take place between the late summer festivals and the mid winter festivals.” 

In a bid to invigorate the event, which wrapped over the weekend, the former Venice director (who took the reins of the festival in March) had introduced new strands and moved the festival to a post-AFM slot.

However, while the festival has touted an increase in accredited badge holders, overall attendance was down by 15%.

Part of that can be attributed to the increasingly parlous state of Italy’s economy. The local box office has dropped off significantly in the second half of the year.

Also, Mueller didn’t see all of the €12-13m budget he was promised. 

“Not only that, we also inherited a lot of debt,” he explained. “We really didn’t have enough money at hand to invest in everything that would have helped. Even in terms of accommodation. When you launch a new edition you’d hope to be able to be slightly more generous.”

Despite the squeezed budget, Mueller delivered on his promised 60 world premieres.

Regis Roinsard’s Populaire, Johnnie To’s Drug War and Twilight Breaking Dawn Part 2 were among the films closest to uniting critics and public at this year’s event, which some industry, however, said lacked palpable hits such as Man on Wire or Juno, from previous editions.  

There were a number of well-received Asian titles and a handful of US indie dramas that drew largely positive reviews, including Alan Polsky and Gabriel Polsky’s The Motel Life. The young people’s Alice In the City (Alice Nella Citta) programme, which is now an independent strand in collaboration with the festival, saw a boost in visitors. 

However, during the event, the festival came under fire from local media and some industry for patchy attendance, a perceived lack of stars and the number of niche films.

“Rome is suffering a crisis of identity,” one major local distributor told newspaper La Repubblica. One ex-Venice head complained that the selection was too niche.

“Every edition should try to provide an answer to the shortcomings of the previous ones,” Mueller replied. “We have tried to provide answers to some of the things that didn’t work in previous editions. Now we’ll have to correct our own mistakes.”

According to Mueller among the mistakes were the ticket prices and number of films. “If we want to attract different types of viewers we’ll have to reinvent the pricing policy to make films more accessible. Young viewers can decide what happens to the future of a film when it plays in a festival. They can orientate a distributor. They’ve criticized the €25-30 price for a gala premiere ticket.

“We also need to reduce the number of films,” he recognised. “The CinemaXXI section proved very exciting but if we want awareness around these films we need fewer of them. We need the media to feel it can follow all the films. Fewer films will logically mean fewer world premieres.”

Most would recognise that it hasn’t been a vintage year for Italian films, which could also be a factor in Rome’s attendance figures. The Italian film that scooped two major awards at the festival — Paolo Franchi’s And They Call It Summer — was booed and jeered by a number of critics.

Much of the criticism leveled at the festival was seen to be political in origin. Some detractors are still smarting over Mueller’s appointment which they claim was engineered by right-wing politicians.

Some of the criticism was also likely borne out of Italy’s all too frequent inter-festival feuding. Italian producer and ANICA president Riccardo Tozzi told La Repubblica that Italy’s festivals “must stop making war.”

“Of course it is very political,” recognised Mueller. “I received the same treatment in Venice. If I had started paying attention to that kind of political speculation I wouldn’t have survived there for eight years. At the beginning when I was appointed they said I was one of Berlusconi’s puppets. Then when I survived the change of government they started talking about a fantasy Maoist past.  Yes, I did study in China and I do speak Chinese but I don’t have a Maoist past. Who cares in the end. They can attach all the labels they want – left, right, social democrat – the important thing is what we do in order to help various modes of filmmaking and experiences.”

Some international industry attending Rome’s Business Street remarked that the market was quieter than in previous editions.

Business Street manager Sylvain Auzou declined to comment at length but did say he thought the festival’s new post-AFM slot was a “damaging one” in respect to the number of buyers attending Business Street.

The festival’s reduced budget meant that many industry were invited for fewer days than previous editions. There were gripes from some attendees about a lack of organisation and press conferences and industry events only being in Italian.

Moving Business Street and the festival centre closer together is one idea Mueller is considering. But the market’s date is likely to remain the same.

“What is essential for us is that we can be useful. We want to replicate the kind of an experience we gave to Hurt Locker in Venice,” added Mueller. 

Some industry have speculated that the director could be ousted after the general election early next year. “I have a three-year contract so I’ll be here for another two years,” Mueller countered. “I’d be surprised if I wasn’t.”