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Creative destruction in Venice

As painful as they are, recessions play a vital role in an economy’s ecology, weeding out weak companies and exposing shams like Bernie Madoff’s. This year's Venice Film Festival shows that downturns also increase opportunities for feisty newcomers.


The cast of "Women Without Men," arrive at a Venice Film Festival screening. This film was one of an unusual number from first-time directors. (Photo by Tony Gentile / Reuters)
VENICE, Italy -- The world’s oldest film festival is usually not a place for new talent.
Now in its 66th edition, landing a slot at the storied Venice festival is one way a film director knew he or she had arrived. The famous red carpet, the history, the atmosphere, the paparazzi — they have long been alluring, but inaccessible, to young directors.
That changed this year. A surprising 19 films from first- and second-time directors were included in the festival’s official selection. Five directorial first efforts were among the 24 films selected to compete for the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion, to be decided on September 12. In the previous five years combined, there had been just two.
Even though there are more unfamiliar faces around than in previous years, Venice still has plenty of glitz and glamour. Marco Mueller, the festival’s artistic director, says he did not intentionally seek out projects from relatively untested directors for this year’s event, and he defends their selection by saying they were among the best films available. The reasons for the new faces, Mueller says, are mostly economic.
“It’s no surprise that these days studios don’t have the money to spend that they used to have,” Mueller says. “And new talent is cheaper than experienced talent.”
In many ways, top-rung festivals like Venice are barometers for an industry that is itself a barometer for the cultures it reflects. Seasons that see the rise of a specific genre, the emergence of a film that dominates the Oscars, or the revival of a faded career are usually hinted to first at the festivals, where new projects are premiered and industry players network.
The current trend is a little different. For example, back in May, the famous party scene at Cannes was far more subdued, as entertainment budgets were dramatically cut back. Indications are that Berlin, which will be the first major festival in 2010, is already slashing the fees it charges to production companies. And a larger-than-normal number of smaller-budget films — and the untested directors that often come with them — are making their way onto the famous Venice Lido.
“In this economic climate, smaller films have a much greater chance to end up at a major film festival,” says Alex Walton, vice-president in charge of international sales for Paramount-Vantage. “Fewer films are being financed, and that means the same festivals are chasing fewer potential films.”
According to Mark Holdom, director of Rome-based production company Pantera, it’s middle budget films that get squeezed out.
“There will always be big blockbuster films because with the right story and the right cast, they always make money,” Holdom says. “It’s the films with budgets of $5 million, $10 million that aren’t getting made as much.”
That is good news for those who produce lower-budget films, but it also means that the budget range that produced highly successful independent films like the recent “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Juno” and “Little Miss Sunshine” — all of which took home at least one Oscar — is sparking far less interest from producers, distributors, and sales agents.
“Sales agents all over the world are going out of business, and the ones that are still around are being much more selective,” Holdom says. “A lot of films that would have easily been made just a year or two ago cannot get past the script stage now.”
One case in point is “The Road,” a post-apocalyptic father and son survival story based on a popular book by Cormac McCarthy, the writer behind the successful Coen brothers production “No Country for Old Men.” Starring Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron and directed by the up-and-coming John Hillcoat, the cast for “The Road” is strong. It is even vying for Venice’s prestigious Golden Lion. Yet the film is likely to leave the festival without a distributor in several countries, including Italy where it screened in plain sight for every distributor in the country.
“A couple of years ago, a film with a pedigree finds a buyer without much problem,” Holdom says. “Now distributors worry about whether the topic is right, if the cost is too high, how hard it will be to promote. They’re much more cautious.”
Is that a bad thing? Most film industry players say the changing nature of the business may mean fewer uninteresting films will be made, but they add it could also yield an era of less ambitious projects, low risk either because the topic or cast assures a strong box office, or because the budget is low enough to minimize the risk.
It’s the latter example that could prove to be good news for Venice and other leading film festivals, according to Paramount-Vantage’s Walton.
“I think festivals will become even more relevant,” he says. “Good films will continue to be made, and it will be festivals that will introduce a lot of them. Rather than help publicize films that already have distribution plans in place, the festivals could give a better chance to smaller films that might be candidates for wider distribution.”
Five films in Venice's main competition from first-time directors include:
• "Women Without Men," a German film based on a banned book about Iran in the 1950s directed by noted artist and activist Ahmed Maher.
• Ahmed Maher's "The Traveler," an epic Egyptian love story that focuses on three days of the protagonist's life, one each in 1948, 1973, and 2001.
• "Lebanon," directed by Samuel Maoz, is an Israeli film about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon told entirely from within the confines of a tank.
• "A Single Man," directed by famed U.S. fashion designer Tom Ford, is about a man struggling to cope with the death of his wife set during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
• Italy's "The Double Hour," from music video director Giuseppe Capotondi, is a mystery story about an immigrant Slovenian woman and an Italian man, who may have faked his death.