Venice is reverting back to its single Golden Lioncompetition, cutting back by half the number of films that have screened on theLido in the past three years, newly appointed festival chief Marco Muellerannounced on Thursday.

Mueller said the newly streamlined festival will enableindustry professionals and critics to fully focus their attention on the 50feature films that will have their world or international premieres in Venice,as well as 10 features shot on digital video. In addition, the festival willcontinue to hold its Critics Week sidebar as well as a retrospective this yearon 'The Italian kings B-movies' in the 1970s.

On Thursday Steven Spielberg, who was in Rome to receive aspecial career David di Donatello, told journalists that his new film, TheTerminal with Tom Hanks and CatherineZeta-Jones, will be among the films holding its international premiere at the upcomingVenice Festival.

Mueller's proposal for a single competition will see thenumber of movies in Venice's official selection drastically cut back from the130 feature films that have recently screened at the festival as part of thetwo separate Venice competitions which former artistic director Alberto Barberaestablished in 2001.

Explaining his decision to revert back to a single competition,which still needs to meet the final approval of the Biennale board, Muellersaid he was aiming for 'fewer films, fewer awards, and a greater focus onthe films.'

'Venice is Venice,' he said. It has a very precisehistory. It's not an imitation of any other festival, and should not be a superLocarno or a super Turin. Often the second competition looked like the first.With two competitions, you're going to have less strong films. And in a dailynewspaper, there is no space for more than four or five reviews.'

He added: 'It is very important for Venice to re-focuson theatrical feature-length films. I'm really trying to go back to a periodwhen the identity of the Venice Film Festival was very strong.'

Mueller confirmed that the next edition of the festival willbe held from Sept 1 to 11, 2004, moving its dates back a few days from itsusual slot in order to provide a more lucrative platform for Italianindependent distributors to release their autumn titles. (see, March 30, 2004).

Mueller said he had taken his decision after carefullypolling a wide number of international producers, distributors and salesagents. He added: 'Only the biggest films can survive if they are releasedin Italy on August 26. But the new dates generally make much more sense.Professionals have to go on holiday, come back, and prepare to do business inVenice. Otherwise, Venice is like an extended holiday.'

He also said he is closely collaborating with the TorontoFilm Festival, which will run its 2004 edition from September 9-18, in order totime the gala premieres of films both festivals are likely to present and avoidany clashes.

'I already know which film will premiere in Venice on aFriday, and am talking to Toronto so that the film that screens in Venice on aFriday could have its gala premiere in Toronto on a Sunday,' he said.

The Rome-born festival chief said that while Toronto is aperfect platform for Northern American releases, he has strong hopes thatVenice will become the perfect launch-pad for international press junkets andreleases. 'My dream is to make sure that Venice focuses on mid-budget andmajor films, that are the very best artistic commercial films.'

The 61st edition of the festival will be the first to beheaded by the former Locarno and Rotterdam chief, who replaced Moritz de Hadelnlast month.

In the meantime, Mueller has already been thrown in the deepend of Venice's political turmoil, although he insists that he remainsunscathed.

A press conference that was due to be held on Thursday wascancelled at the last minute when the Biennale found itself incapable ofratifying Mueller's new plans for the festival because of the polemics raisedby a member within its own ranks.

During the April 14 meeting, peripheral board member ValerioRiva raised the matter of Mueller's potential conflict of interest as aproducer who has a 4-year output deal with Rai Cinema.

Mueller said he had already approached the question withBiennale president Davide Croff before accepting the job as artistic directorof the Venice festival.

As such, he has sold most of his stake in his Bologna-basedproduction outfit, Downtown pictures, to two private investors, retaining onlyan 18% share in the company. [The new chairman of Downtown is Viviana Querello,who will continue to operate with Mueller's two partners, Elisabetta Olmi andAlfonso Nino Cucci].

'It is surprising that this issue only arose now,'told a group of international journalists. 'I never hid my deal with RaiCinema. It was splashed all over the papers at Venice in 2002, and we held abig party at the Excelsior,' he said, adding: 'The very fact that I'ma producer means I'm completely politically independent. I would prefer to ruinmy relationship with Rai Cinema rather than take a film I don't believein.'

Mueller said: 'I will continue to work for Venice, as Ihave been doing, regardless of any political pressure.'

The Biennale's official press conference is now due to takeplace after its board meets again, 'within the next two weeks.'Mueller expects to sign his 4-year contract to head the Venice Film Festivalbefore the next Biennale meeting.