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Venice Film Festival

The Venice Production Bridge (VPB) opens its doors for business on Thursday (September 3) on the third floor of the Venice Lido’s iconic Hotel Excelsior, with temperature checks at the entrance as well as obligatory masks and social distancing measures inside.

Unfolding September 3-11, it is the biggest industry event to physically take place since the European Film Market (EFM) in Berlin, which ran February 20-27, just two weeks before Europe started locking down mid-March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Film sales and distribution execs often dismiss Venice as a place to get down to serious business, preferring instead to focus on dealmaking across the Atlantic during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Things could be different this year amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Toronto remains physically out of bounds for international guests due to Canada’s Covid-related entry restrictions for most non-national or resident travellers. They were extended late last week until September 30, vindicating the festival’s early decision to have “a strong digital component” and move its TIFF Industry programme online.

International travel to the San Sebastian Film Festival (September 18-26) is also looking increasingly precarious following a resurgence of the virus in Spain which registered some 90,000 fresh cases in the last two weeks of August. 

And with Covid-19 cases rising again across many other parts of Europe, the Venice Production Bridge could end up being the first and last sizeable industry event taking place in the region since the EFM for the rest of 2020. (As of early September, Rome’s MIA audiovisual market is still scheduled for October 14-18).

Some 800 professionals have registered to physically attend the VPB and another 150 have opted for virtual participation. The number is way down on 2019, when there were 2,700 industry delegates, but VPB head Pascal Diot is not disheartened. 

“I’ve been agreeably surprised by the response,” he told Screen. “I think people are eager to get back out there. It’s more than five months now since a major on-site industry meeting. Working remotely was okay for two, three months but I think people are now fed up.”

Diot and his team have created a hybrid physical and online event in response to the challenges posed by the pandemic. A number of its regular components have moved uniquely online such as the market screenings and Final Cut in Venice meeting which is aimed at finding post-production finance for a selection of African and Middle Eastern projects at the rough-cut stage.

“Because of the restrictions on cinema capacity this year, the festival needed all the theatres it could get its hands on, so the VPB lost its screens,” explained Diot.

Last year, the VPB ran market screenings from 9am-7pm across three screens. This edition, they will run online on the industry focused Festival Scope Pro platform.

“Each market screening will take place twice, once for the European time zone beginning at 9am local time, and once for North America, beginning 9am Los Angeles time,” explained Diot. “We’ve had a fair amount of interest out of the US.”

Final Cut in Venice will take place entirely online on September 7 and 8. It supports six films this year including Lebanese director Ely Dagher’s Beirut-set, homecoming drama Harvest and Tunisian filmmaker Laïla Chaibi’s documentary Guardians Of The Worlds, about a man who has lived in a cemetery for 40 years. 

The rough cut screenings will take place on Festival Scope Pro while presentations, Q&As and one-on-ones will happen online, with each project getting its own individual Zoom Room.

“Given the travel restrictions in place for many of the selected participants, it was simpler for everyone to participate from their home territories. Of course, they all would have preferred to be in Venice but they’re all still pleased to have been selected, be presenting their projects as part of the VPB. Even if it’s online. it will still help the project” said Diot.

Also heading online will be the virtual reality immersive story projects and Biennale College Cinema virtual reality projects, being presented as part of the Venice Gap Financing Market (VGFM), running September 4-6.

The entire Venice VR programme has moved online this year due to the fact that its usual base of the Isola Lazzaretto Vecchio, lying just off the Lido, is not available due to local Covid-19 measures.

“Everything else is taking place onsite in Venice,” says Diot.

This includes physical presentations of the 26 fiction and documentary feature projects selected for the Venice Gap Financing Market; the Book Adaptation Rights Market, featuring the participation of 17 publishing houses; and the VoD Market Day organised in cooperation with Eurovod, the European network of independent VoD labels.

The Venice Gap Financing Market features projects by the likes of Steve McQueen, Emily Atef and Pia Marais but the filmmakers have not been invited this year with priority given to the producers to keep meetings numbers down in compliance with social distancing protocols. 

All these physical events will also viewable on a specially created VPB Live Channel, which is available on the VPB homepage.

“We’ve also got a programme of some 20 talks and panels, which will either take place completely online, or partly in Venice and partly online. They will all be transmitted on our channel and open to everyone,” adds Diot.

They include the annual European Film Forum on September 4, which will address the challenges facing the region’s film and TV sectors due to the pandemic under the banner of “Fostering recovery and building resilience: audiovisual as a key industry for Europe’s growth”.

European Union Commissioner for the internal market Thierry Breton will address the conference via a video-link while Italian culture undersecretary Anna Laura Orrico will give a keynote. The commissioner is at the forefront of the EU’s Covid-19 recovery drive and also holds strong views on the need for a digital tax on global digital giants such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. 

Further speakers will include Laurence Herszberg, managing director of France’s Series Mania TV festival and industry meeting, and Jan Mojto, founding chief of Germany-based film and TV group Beta.

The European Producers Club will also look at the implications of the pandemic in a round-table event at which members will share experiences on how they have coped with lockdown and are now dealing with the new Covid-era environment.

It’s not all about Covid: there are also panels about VR work out of Canada; a Focus on China; the unveiling of the finalists in this year’s edition of the European Parliament’s Lux Awards, a gender equality and inclusivity conference and a presentation of the fledgling Filmmakers At Risk initiative.

“We didn’t want to be anxiety-provoking,” said Diot. “There are plenty of other presentations on other topics.” 

Beyond the set events, Diot hopes there will be plenty of organic activity in and around the market which has also created an industry club lounge where participants can meet in private.

“Online projections and Zoom meetings work up to point but the DNA of our profession is meeting people face to face. Even if it’s a meeting between a seller and a distributor who already know one another, it’s always better to sit down and talk in person.”