Venice Film Festival director Alberto Barbera

Source: La Biennale di Venezia, ASAC, Giorgio Zucchiatti

Venice Film Festival director Alberto Barbera

The Venice Film Festival enters the home stretch of its 78th edition on Thursday with films left to play over the coming two-and-a-half days including Golden Lion contenders America Latina and Another World as well as Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, which is debuting out of competition.

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are among the stars expected to hit the red carpet on Friday evening for The Last Duel, ensuring the festival’s star wattage remains high until the end, with guests so far including Penelope Cruz, Kristen Stewart, Timothee Chamelet, Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac, Kate Hudson and Jamie Lee Curtis. 

After the absence of big US studio and streaming platform productions last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this edition has been one of the starriest in years, even by pre-pandemic standards, while overall professional and public attendance has also outstripped expectations. The selection has also launched a host of awards season hopefuls from Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog to Pablo Larrain’s Spencer and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter as well as best international feature Oscar contenders White Building for Cambodia and Leave No Traces for Poland.

Artistic director Alberto Barbera takes stock as the edition draws to a close. 

How are you feeling? It feels like its been a pretty incredible edition.
Yes, it has been. For a number of reasons, not just the quality of the films, such as the presence of so many stars as well as the overall attendance, that exceeded our expectations.

How many accredited guests were there in the end?
There were just over 10,300, including press and industry and other guests. Last year, we had just over 6,000 attendees and in 2019, we were at 12,500. This year’s numbers suggest we’re returning to some sort of normality for the festival, even though travel from some countries, especially in Asia, remains difficult.

There were a few problems nonetheless, especially around the online screening and press conference reservation system with many accredited attendees complaining they could not secure a place.
Yes, especially at the beginning. This was partly down to the fact we had the same 50% capacity restrictions in the theatres as last year, with 50 to 60% more accredited guests. In the opening days, the booking system got overwhelmed, and even crashed a few times, because everyone tried to reserve for everything at the same time.

Thankfully, it’s working properly now even if we all suffered in the early days of the festival. These are problems we have to keep in mind for next year, even if we manage to run a normal festival, without Covid, the pandemic or restrictions, with a bigger attendance. It’s clear we need an efficient reservation system.

Will the festival never go back to the system in place prior to the pandemic where people simply turned up and accessed screenings with their accreditation badges?
We will never return to the old days of a ticket office and queues to get in. The possibility of being able to reserves seats is a blessing for everyone. You don’t have to turn up an hour in advance, without knowing whether you’ll make it into the theatre. You can schedule your day in advance. In the end, plenty of people were able to reserve tickets for all the films they needed to see, as things calmed down, it was often easier to secure a ticket a few hours prior to the screening rather than the minute they went online.

Do you think you’ll ever introduce a more sophisticated colour-coded badge system like that of Cannes, giving priority to certain members of media?
We already have a system. The daily press has a red badge while the others have blue and then there’s the industry badge and the green badge for other accreditations. The priority for me is to ensure everyone has the possibility to get into screenings. 

This is the second year running you have organised a festival against the challenging backdrop of the pandemic. How have you kept the momentum going this year? Was it easier second time around?
Paradoxically it was harder this year than last year. Last year, it was the first time and we reinvented our organisational and film programming models from scratch.

This year, it was harder. Up until the last moment, we hoped the pandemic would fade or that at least the restrictions of the previous year [such as the 50% capacity] would not be necessary. We hoped the introduction of the green pass [proving the holder is either fully vaccinated or in receipt of a recent negative test] would bring an end to the 50% capacity rule in cinemas, as was the case in France. At the end of July, a government decree maintained the restriction. We had to do a U-turn and dust off the programming model of last year.

Did the introduction of the green pass help logistics overall?
It did in the end, but it involved more work at the preparation stage because we had to get all the accredited attendees to send us a copy of their green pass so we could then insert it into the system. It then worked very well because when you showed your ticket or your accreditation pass it showed whether you were vaccinated, or needed to show a negative test. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that 90% of our accredited guests were fully vaccinated.

The Italian Red Cross was operating 12 Covid-19 testing hubs for festival attendees. Did they register any Covid-19 cases?
There were two, as well as six or seven false positives with lateral flow tests that then proved to be negative when the guest took a PCR. It’s incredibly low when you think it was out of 3,500 tests. It’s miraculous and lower than the national average which is running at 3%.

Public attendance also felt higher. There were a lot more crowds around the festival hub, especially in front of the Palazzo del Cinema ahead of the gala screenings, even though the red carpet was boarded off again. Will this wall be removed next year?
That was pain. With vaccination campaigns around the world making progress, I truly hope most of this year’s restrictions will the removed and we can return to a more normal version of the festival and especially the red carpet, which is a high point for many people who come to lap up the atmosphere of the festival, especially the youngsters.

That was also a beautiful thing this year. There was a high percentage of youngsters, which gives me hope. We have a tendency to write off the younger generation when it comes to cinema, to see them as them being obsessed with the internet or video games but younger cinephiles were out in force this year alongside our older, long-time attendees. 

One of your declared ambitions as director of the festival has been to upgrade its key locations like the Casino press conference and screening hub and other venues.
The renovations in the Casino continue. New emergency exits are due to be installed on the third floor this year which will enable us to allow members of the public into the building. Until now it has only been accredited guests. The plan is to convert the press conference room into a new theatre with more than 500 seats. The press conference room will be located somewhere else in the Casino.

We’re also planning a new outdoor cinema to replace the theatre on the ground floor of the Casino, which is being converted into a restaurant. The kitchens have already been installed.

This edition has again showcased a slew of films with awards-season potential. Do you believe Venice’s position as an awards launchpad has benefitted from the pandemic and the fact that Toronto to some degree has been side-lined?
Yes, undisputedly. We’ve been lucky in a way in being the first big international festival of the new season and also gaining traffic from the fact that Toronto is taking place as a hybrid event. These circumstances have clearly given Venice greater visibility with a number of bigger US productions coming to the festival as part of their international promotional campaign.

This is also the fruit, however, of work begun 10 years ago to raise Venice’s profile that has been reinforced year after year and I’m sure that Venice will continue to be an important appointment for big productions into the future.

Could smaller, independent productions get squeezed out of Venice?
I don’t think so. While there are lots of big US productions this year, there are plenty of independent productions, from emerging countries and talents, all of which have received a warm welcome. Venice remains an extraordinary platform to promote independent cinema. I don’t think more modest films are penalised by the presence of big films, if anything it’s the opposite, they profit from the international limelight that follows the big productions. Venice will continue to be a place for all types of cinema for the foreseeable future.