Venice might have been sans Clooney this year, but there are plenty of reasons why this festival is still vital.

It seems to happen every year, the whispers that Venice is slipping from its past glories and becoming less important to attend, especially with the behemoth of Toronto looming.

It was true that it felt less buzzy on the Lido this year, and there were sometimes fewer people hanging around the Movie Village downing Aperol spritzes or sitting in the garden of the Quatro Fontana talking about cinema, and there were fewer A-listers in town (Clooney’s absence was certainly felt).

But there are several important signs of life in Venice, and it’s important to remember what IS working well with this festival:  

The market

Is it a market where loads of deals will be done? No. Is it a place where industry loves to come, and start discussions that might turn into deals? Yes. There have already been a few deals signed, mostly Italian distributors boarding festival titles, and there will be other pickups before the market wraps. It’s a platform to have conversations without too many distractions, and that can be invaluable.

The film world needs another co-production market like a hole in the head. But market director Pascal Diot has smartly filled another related niche with its new Gap Financing Market – with titles from the likes of Amir Naderi and David Verbeek being touted. The quality of the projects was praised by the attending financiers. They are 70-90 percent financed so have some seal of approval already, and that last piece of the financing puzzle can be the hardest to find, so it serves an actual need for producers.

The vibe

Anyone who uses the word “relaxed” to talk about Toronto or Cannes is either a liar or someone not clued-in enough to have any meetings or massive screening lists.

Venice, however, is an exceedingly pleasant festival to visit, no matter how important you are. The number of films in the programme is manageable, the footprint of the festival is walkable and convenient. There are plenty of good restaurants and cafes. It’s late summer in Italy, it’s sunny, people are happy to be there wandering around (can’t say that for February in Berlin). Some people even find time for a visit to the Architecture Biennale, or a swim in the sea (unheard of in Cannes.)

David Gordon Green told me on the Lido it was absolutely the right place to premiere his Al Pacino starring Manglehorn (which next goes to Toronto). He said, “Some people in the industry ask me, Why go to Venice? I like it because there’s nothing cutthroat about it. You’re in a relaxed, romantic place to let your movie go.”

It should also be mentioned that Venice director Alberto Barbera likes filmmakers and filmmakers like him.

The films

There have already been several great films from Venice 2014, including opening night selection Birdman, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Look of Silence and the lauded local mafia story Black Souls. Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way was a Woody Allen-esque screwball comedy, it didn’t reinvent the wheel but it was a joy to watch. Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes was a socially relevant thriller.  Plenty of other films have also gone down well so far – including Saverio Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts and Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. And that’s with five days still to go. 

To be honest, there are some duds in the programme too – there are some at every festival. But there are plenty of films to admire at Venice 2014.

The Biennale College

The Biennale College, now in its second year and announcing its selections for the third edition, is quietly emerging as an important source to discover new voices.

This year’s three films that were made with the backing of the College were debut feature Blood Cells by Joseph Bull and Luke Seomore, a poetic character study/UK road movie starring Barry Ward (Jimmy’s Hall); H by Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia; and Italy’s coming-of-age comedy Short Skin by Duccio Ciarini.

Ben Young, one of the UK-based producers at Third Films, who produced Blood Cells, told me that the College was one of the professional highlights of his career, because it wasn’t just some airy-fairy workshops, it was all in the service of getting a film actually made.

Last year’s Memphis directed by XXXX was another College production that went on to be sold to Kino Lorber XXXX in the US.

These are films that might not have been made without the support of Venice’s College, and they are rightly starting to attract more attention within the festival programme as fully fledged works in their own right, not a marginal ‘lab’ style projects.

So, there are plenty of signs of life in Venice. My only wish – as I write this en route to Toronto already – is that somehow Venice could start a week early so these festivals would have no overlap.