Venice Film Festival Chief Alberto Barbera On Temperature Checks, Studio Anxiety, ‘Nomadland’, Gender-Neutral Prizes & The Volpi Cup

This has been a Venice like none other. The world’s first COVID-era festival is taking place amid a slew of health and safety protocols and has had to adjust expectations accordingly. But the mere fact the event is going ahead is a marvel. The event is showcasing a blend of global arthouse movies and U.S. independent films with the occasional studio feature to boot. The journalists and industry I’ve spoken to are largely thrilled to be here.

At the event’s half-way point we sat down with long-time festival director Alberto Barbera to discuss in real-time how the festival is progressing and some of the burning questions that have arisen in recent days and weeks, including how the protocols are going, gender-neutral awards, which movie has the best shot at the Oscars and whether Netflix will be back next year.

DEADLINE: How is the festival going for you? It has been quite a journey just to get to this point…

ALBERTO BARBERA: We worked under great uncertainty until at least the end of May. I was quite pessimistic about the possibility of arranging a festival. In June, the situation slowly improved and we started to imagine how we could manage it. In the beginning it was scary because I was told I couldn’t invite more than 25 films. I told them that didn’t make sense. We knew we didn’t want an online festival and we considered a hybrid festival but most producers and filmmakers told us they didn’t want that. Around mid-June we thought we could get to around 50 titles. In the end we managed to get around 65 films.

DEADLINE: There was much talk about a collaboration with Cannes on the lineup but that didn’t come to fruition in the end…

BARBERA: We had a weekly talk. There were a number of suggestions and options. I think we did it well in the end because we both got to showcase a number of different movies, which hopefully will help their journeys. And we jointly came up with the idea to host the seven artistic directors on the first night as a show of solidarity for festivals and cinemas.

DEADLINE: Inevitably, it looks like attendance is down?

 BARBERA: We’re at around 50% capacity. Last year we had around 12,000 accreditations. this year is looking like around six thousand. We’re actually very happy with the result given the circumstances.

DEADLINE: This edition has been dominated by talk of coronavirus, of course. Has anyone contracted COVID-19 here?

BARBERA: No, not that I’m aware of. So far it has gone well. We’ll see. Of course it can take some time to emerge but we’re hopeful.

DEADLINE: Do you know how many people have been turned away from screenings or the festival center for having a high temperature?

BARBERA: One or two people, only.

DEADLINE: Wow, that’s not many. You’d think it would be more. What would the festival do if someone contracted COVID-19 while here?

BARBERA: We would immediately inform the local health authorities and they would take care of the case. They would come and check you and put you in quarantine if you were sick. We would inform as many people as possible that you had come into contact with.

DEADLINE: So it’s not like parts of the festival would shut down?

BARBERA: No, not at all.

DEADLINE: This is a very different edition with fewer studio movies on the Lido. That said, do you see any potential Oscar movies or performances?

 BARBERA: I think at least one has a good chance of being in contention for Oscars, and that’s Nomadland. Francis McDormand is really fantastic in it. I’d be surprised if she wasn’t in the running. There are also international films that will represent their country in the international film category such as Polish film Never Gonna Snow Again?

DEADLINE: We heard that Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks was a potential for the festival until very late in the day?

BARBERA: That was a very long discussion. We started the conversation with Sofia, the producer, distributor months ago, initially back in January in fact. They changed their mind a lot. Apple made the decision, ultimately. They didn’t want movies at festivals this year. It was the same with their Werner Herzog documentary. They were open to that film being shown online but that wasn’t for us. They were anxious about the security risks.

DEADLINE: Should the studios have helped the cause by sending more movies? Was that a disappointment?

BARBERA: They could have. But the lawyers are so worried about legal implications. We have a few studio movies but even Sony was very anxious [about The World To Come]. They didn’t want Mona Fastvold [director] to travel to Venice. She had to take the responsibility herself. I don’t quite understand the level of anxiety.

DEADLINE: Will the studios and streamers be back next year? 

BARBERA: Yes, I’m sure.

DEADLINE: Did Netflix tell you they’d be back?

BARBERA: Yes, absolutely. We had a long conversation with them. They reaffirmed that they want to support the festival.

DEADLINE: Did they give you some money in the meantime? I gather they are financially supporting some festivals…

BARBERA: They gave some financial support to the exhibition we have in the Giardini about the history of the Biennale. We didn’t want to take money directly from them as a festival.

DEADLINE: I went to the exhibition yesterday – it was fascinating. I loved it. But I didn’t see Netflix’s name…

BARBERA: No, they wanted their involvement to be under the radar.

 DEADLINE: The exhibition was a reminder of how political the film festival has been over the years. But it struck me that significant political protest and demonstration has not been so present over the last 10-20 years. Why do you think that is? It’s not like we’re lacking for things to be frustrated about between Civil Rights, Trump, Brexit, Berlusconi etc…

BARBERA: I think that reflects wider socio-economic changes. It’s hard to say exactly. But I also think in the past there were more collective responses to political problems. Nowadays dissent is more individual…

DEADLINE: The exhibition reminded me that your best actor prizes are still named after the festival’s founder, Giuseppe Volpi, who was a prominent member of Mussolini’s fascist government. Have you considered changing the name of the prize given his associations?

BARBERA: We had a discussion. But we decided against it. I don’t agree with the cancel culture movement. I don’t like that attitude. We have had discussion about Volpi’s past and it’s important to have that discussion. Volpi had positive and negative impacts. It’s never black and white. There is always a lot of grey. To cancel the name of the festival’s creator doesn’t make sense to me. It’s not a way to face the problem.

DEADLINE: Would you consider gender-neutral awards as the Berlin Film Festival is doing next year?

 BARBERA: No. I understand Berlin’s decision. It is about diminishing gender discrimination. But I’m not sure this is the correct and proper way to solve the problem.

DEADLINE: Are there any things the festival will look to do differently next year?

BARBERA: We will learn about certain technologies and what we can improve…

DEADLINE: A festival/booking app would be useful, for example…

BARBER: Yes, we didn’t have time to do the app, unfortunately…

DEADLINE: Will you keep the online system of pre-booking tickets for screenings?

BARBERA: We haven’t decided yet. We know people liked that system. It’s a possibility.

DEADLINE: This is the last year of your term as artistic director. Will you be back?

BARBERA: That’s not up to me. I think the board will decide in mid-October. I’d very much like to be back – this is what I know – but we’ll have to see.

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