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“The Mostra has proven its influence over films that are competing for the Oscars”

Between great productions, intimist proposals, and virtual reality films, the 78th edition of the Mostra definitively positions the Venice film festival as one of the significant happenings able to influence the cinema industry. Its director, Alberto Barbera, talks about strategies.

Cristina D’Agostino

By Cristina D’Agostino10 septembre 2021

The actor Timothée Chalamet on the red carpet before the screening of Dune (RED CARPET - DUNE - Timothée Chalamet (Credits La Biennale di Venezia - Foto ASAC by G. Zucchiatti)

For Alberto Barbera, director of the Venice Film Festival, the return of Americans is a positive sign. It is the much-expected symbol of a recovery for the movie industry. For over 10 years, this former journalist and film critic has been working in rekindling the prestige and international aura of the oldest film festival worldwide. This 78th edition is already successful according to him, despite restrictions due to Covid-19 which have kept the Mostra from filling its theatres. All the great movie stars attended the red carpet. The epitome, in his opinion, of an approach implemented at his arrival as head of the Mostra.

Alberto Barbera, director of the Mostra, on the right of the picture. Next to him Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish in the centre, Paul Schrader and Oscar Isaac, during the presentation of the film The Card Counter (La Biennale di Venezia - Foto ASAC by J. Salvi)

You have been working at repositioning the Venice International Film Festival for ten years. Yet a festival cannot grow without a strong movie industry. What is your strategy?

This project was built with one focus in mind: to be aligned with the new millennium, which has already gone through a digital revolution, and therefore needed to move on from old categories and critics that belong to the past, the ones that prevailed in the 1960s. Today, independent films exist, but they need to be confronted to a global industrial market. The pandemic has imposed further digital platforms. The competition among them enables quality content, which has become rich and varied, both adapted to a global audience yet specific. Today, the public wants to choose between categories and movie genres. The game of offer and demand guides the market of the film industry. It is not a limitation to creative freedom, on the contrary.

So, have you ever criticized these platforms?

No, as it seemed obvious from the beginning that digital platforms would represent the future. We chose to present the first Netflix movie in 2014. We had already understood that Netflix would become a significant actor on the production market.

You were the only one to think so at the time…

Yes. Today, I can’t tell the difference in terms of quality between Netflix, Warner Bros or Disney Plus. The only difference is in the way they show movies. Warner produces films and shows them both in theatres and on the platform, while Netflix only streams them on its platform.

But what do you think about the war between platforms?

The war simply shifted locations. In the past, the struggle was about conquering the most movie theatres, today, it’s about conquering viewers and subscribers.

What is your objective with the Mostra?

Quality. The platforms are about producing films that will be shown at festivals, as it is a way to add value to movies, and therefore stand out from the rest of the production. Being proof of quality is also important to them. That is why festivals will become ever more relevant. Their role will not diminish because of the internet, promoting movies will always happen through close contact with the public.

How have movies in virtual reality evolved in terms of creativity, also awarded at the Mostra?

The sector is still going through its experimental phase. I can compare this undertaking to the one of 1920s movies, which were searching for a speech, aesthetics, connecting art and theatre, to explore cinematographic universes. Directors back then still tried to understand how to tell a story through picture. Standards have taken time to set.

What future do you expect?

I don’t think virtual reality will replace cinema, it is a form of art and autonomous expression which will have its rules, its standards which don’t exist yet. There is Oculus and other formats, but nothing has been set yet. We still need to overcome inconveniences felt during a viewing, eliminate physical uneasiness. However, creativity is present. The market will exist if standards are established. This reminds me of the war between VHS and BETA formats back then. VR cinema is an expression tool which tells something else, through other tools. It will be complementary to cinema. It was important for the festival to host virtual reality by dedicating a contest, to elevate the level of competition between the best artists.

One of the images from the virtual reality film Anandana competing in the VR film category (Anandana)

Americans have returned to the Mosta. They understood that to win a prize at the Venice festival meant higher chances of winning an Oscar. How do you explain this?

Chloe Zhao's Nomadland won the Golden Lion at the 2020 Mostra before going on to win six Oscars including Best Picture in April 2021 (Nomadland)

A few factors helped us. First, it’s about timing. The Mostra opens the festival season at the same time as the race to the Oscars. And we know that to promote a film which wants to enter this race requires four to five months of promotion. But of course, it is also about the choice of the films. I remember having chosen Gravity which was a true surprise for many. The film went on to win an Oscar. Then there was Spotlight, Lalaland, Shape of Water, Roma, Nomadland, each year we sent a film to the Oscars. The Americans now see Venice as an ideal platform to launch their movies at the Oscars.

Was it already your strategy ten years ago?

Yes, as it is difficult to generate recognition for an international festival without the Americans. It is also a factor that showcases independent movies with smaller productions. To be in Venice at the same time as a movie such as Dune offers a certain prestige. Venice suffered from the competition with Toronto, which attracted movie distribution and sales in the hope of penetrating the North American market. They did not come to Venice anymore. Today we have succeeded.

This competition between festivals is also happening on the field of partnerships. Is attracting great names also part of your strategy?

Yes of course. The ideal partner that works best with cinema is the one that participates in glamor, that dresses stars, actors in the movies, and here I mean fashion, as well as jewelry with Cartier as main new partner this year. They also benefit from this for their own expression and promotion. They gain major press attention on the red carpet. We like the idea of creating something together. Joint operations are very important.

One of the scenes from the film Dune, with Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson (DR)

What are you most proud about in 2021?

This year, programming is exceptional. Quality is higher, we have been able to choose between extraordinary movies. Having the Dune film was very beneficial to the Mostra, as the movie was much awaited over the past three years. I hope this will help restart the industry. We all need this new start despite the pandemic, which is here to last.

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