Outgoing festival director Marco Mueller returned Venice to its former glory by focusing on the movies. Incoming Alberto Barbera has been charged with creating a market infrastructure. But does Venice need it?

The political firestorm that led to the departure of Marco Mueller after eight years as artistic director of the Venice Film Festival is evocative of a Sciasca novel or a Berlusconi cabinet meeting. Although it was widely expected that Mueller would renew his contract for another term, he was instead ousted and former Venice chief Alberto Barbera was drafted back in to run the festival.
The drama includes the long-cherished plan to build a new Palazzo del Cinema on the Lido which was stalled when asbestos was found illegally buried under the site leaving the usually elegant festival compound looking like a gigantic construction site. Mueller clashed with Venice Biennale president Paolo Baratta over the problems and when Baratta had his contract renewed in December, it was unclear whether Mueller would survive. Now Italy is abuzz that Mueller might move to Rome, the October festival which would love nothing more than to steal some of Venice’s thunder.
Perhaps eight years is enough for any festival director to be in place at one event, and nobody in Venice history has served as long as Mueller. But the fact is that Mueller restored Venice to glory since he started in 2004, applying an intellectual and programming rigour to the event and achieving a pitch perfect balance of art and glamour that, all things considered, satisfied multiple constituents – film-makers, Hollywood, international industry, media, municipality, national interests. Yes, his first event in 2004 was famous for organizational mishaps (Harvey Weinstein joke-threatened to drown him in the Lagoon when the Finding Neverland premiere started two-and-a-half hours late), but this year’s Venice ran as smoothly as Cannes or Toronto.
Sure he let some notable films slip (Sideways, anyone? The King’s Speech?) but the discoveries – The Secret Of The Grain, Lebanon, A Single Man, Attenberg etc etc – were numerous, and the risks he took were based on a vital understanding of cinema both as an artform and as popular medium for audiences.
If Mueller does end up in Rome - he has been named in connection with other festivals in Asia as well – he will be a game-changing asset.
Barbera is no slouch, of course. He oversaw the 1999, 2000 and 2001 festivals which hosted world premieres of Topsy-Turvy, The Circle, The Wind Will Carry Us, Platform and Y Tu Mama Tambien. He’s a renowned film critic and veteran festival director who was most recently director of the National Museum Of Cinema in Turin.
Barbera has been charged with following through the reconstruction programme of the devastated Lido but also with expanding the market side of the festival. The plan, the announcement declared, is to create “a light market with realistic but important goals.”
This is where Venice might be getting into muddy Lagoon water again. European buyers love Venice, they like the laid back pace of the festival and they view it as a great place to see films and make discoveries. If they see a film they want to buy, they will pursue it aggressively on site, but they prefer to close their deals in Toronto. TIFF has become the calendar’s early autumn market and that seems to suit the industry. Most North American buyers skip Venice and focus on Toronto as the place to watch films with audiences and do business. Venice, after all, is difficult to get to and expensive to stay in, especially now that there is a shortage of hotel rooms on the island.
Mueller understood that dynamic, and reached an entente cordiale of sorts with Toronto, recognizing TIFF’s superiority as an unofficial market while promoting Venice as a highly curated festival. If Barbera tries to go down the market route again, he might be facing greater competition than he imagined – not least from a possible Mueller-led Rome just two months later.