Venice’s Alberto Barbera Built Fest Into Awards Season Must-Stop
Art and Experience:
There is no doubt that Venice these days is the world’s top event to premiere a future Oscar winner, but it wasn’t always like that.
When artistic director Alberto Barbera returned to the Lido in 2012 “a lot of things had changed at an international level, driven by transformations due to the digital revolution and the re-organization of production and distribution,” he says.
At the time, “Venice was suffering very much from the competition from other festivals, specifically Toronto and subsequently also Telluride.”
For various reasons, one being cost, it had become more difficult for Venice to have access to big productions; not just from Hollywood, but also to European films that often preferred to bypass Venice and go straight to Toronto.
Cut to a decade later. Barbera’s Oscar batting average with titles such as “Gravity” (2013), “Birdman” (2014), “Spotlight” (2015), “La La Land” (2016), “The Shape of Water” (2017), “Roma” (2018), “Joker” (2019) and “Nomadland” (2020) has changed that. He has the luxury now to pick and choose.
“The truth is that Venice today is the festival that kicks off awards season,” says Andrea Scrosati, COO of Fremantle, the company behind Paolo Sorrentino’s Netflix Original “The Hand of God,” which will launch at the Lido in September.
“Anyone who aspires to the main awards, starting from the Oscar, knows that Venice is where to go,” he says. “That is objectively a result of Alberto’s work.”
And Venice’s warm rapport with Netflix, unlike Cannes, as well as to Amazon, are also giving the Lido lineup a boost.
The game-changer, in this respect, was “Gravity,” in which Barbera saw a level of potential that, he says, had escaped its studio Warner Bros. By 2019 he had acquired the confidence to rightly predict that “Joker” was headed “straight to the Oscars.”
“What you have with Alberto is the certainty that he’s able to recognize what’s good,” says Barbara Salabè, the top Warner Bros. executive in Italy, who cautions that it’s reductive to characterize Venice in the Barbera era as a mere launching pad for Oscars.
“He has a good instinct for product at various levels,” she points out. “Alberto knows how to select studio product that is right for his festival. But at the same time he has good instinct on arthouse movies as well. He has a wide spectrum.”
Warner Bros. will be launching Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” reboot at Venice this year, which along with “Spencer,” in which Kristen Stewart plays Princess Diana, already has early awards buzz.
Last year, after debuting on the Lido, “Nomadland” became the second Venice Golden Lion winner in the past four years to take the top prize at the Academy Awards, after Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” managed that feat in 2018.
“Nomadland” also marked the second time in Oscars’ history that a film directed by a woman won both best film and director. Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” another Golden Lion winner back in 2008, had broken that barrier at the 2009 awards.
But it’s significant that even though “Hurt Locker” had been Lionized on the Lido, its release was postponed until the next
year. These days, that delay would not happen because Venice has more cachet.
The Lido’s awards season prestige is certainly boosted by Venice being perfectly positioned in early September to kick off marketing campaigns. The Oscars have also shifted toward more independent cinema that needs a festival launch.
But Barbera is adamant that the value and vision of Venice transcends generating U.S. awards season buzz.
This year almost half of the Venice competition films are by emerging directors who have never played in competition, not just on the Lido, but also in other major festivals, he points out.
“We did this also to prove that Venice is not a mere showcase for obvious high-profile titles from Hollywood or Europe, but instead continues to be a festival for auteurs and discoveries and to help give visibility to cinema from lesser known areas,” Barbera says.
“We have proved that we are also able to promote these films.”