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Venice Director Hopes Stars Will Get SAG-AFTRA Approval for Festival Red Carpet

Alberto Barbera has done it again. The director of the Venice Film Festival has managed to deliver another impressive lineup of big award-contenders and art-house favorites amid speculation that the actors strike would sink Venice and that producers, fearing their talent would not be allowed to do red carpet promotion, would pull their movies off the Lido.

In the end, only one major title was dropped: Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers starring Zendaya, which had been set as the opening night film. (MGM pushed the release of the R-rated tennis drama to next year.) But most of the big titles that had been anticipated to be Lido-bound — including Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things, Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla and Michael Mann’s Ferrari — decided to hold firm. The 80th Biennale, which runs Aug. 30 to Sept. 9, looks like it could be another one for the history books.

Shortly after this year’s announcement, Barbera spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the impact he thinks the strike could have on Venice, the importance of the big festivals in driving audiences back to the cinema and why, despite the controversy, he gave a premiere slot to both Roman Polanski and Woody Allen.

After SAG-AFTRA announced it was going on strike, many people worried it would derail plans for the fall festivals, particularly Venice. You pulled off another impressive lineup, but what was your first reaction when you heard the news of the strike? Did you think everything might fall apart?

I didn’t think anything until the very moment when the strike was announced. It was a complete surprise. I didn’t know what the possible consequences would be. The first three or four days were a nightmare because I had already closed my lineup. Every film was in place. I was happy because it was really very early compared to usual and it was a very strong lineup. I thought I might lose all my films and we’d have to reschedule everything. The first weekend was really tough. Also because everybody in Hollywood was in panic and just disappeared. They spent the weekend talking to each other, having meetings. I couldn’t reach anybody. But from the first Monday [after the strike announcement], we started to get positive signals from most of the production companies, from studios and Netflix.

The only one that was really disrupted by the strike was Amazon MGM and Warner Bros. with Challengers. That was really tough, it was an endless discussion over the entire week. Luca [Guadagnino] fought like crazy to bring the film to Venice. But in the end, they decided to postpone the release because they didn’t want to give up on the promotion they would have with Zendaya. But in the meantime, we got confirmation from all the others. We didn’t lose one single other film from the lineup that we had invited. So the impact of the strike on the festival will be very limited. Of course. There will be fewer stars, fewer talents.

Who do you expect will be able to attend?

The actors who are involved with films from the studios and the platforms, like [Searchlight’s] Poor Things or the Netflix films, might not be able to attend…The others, produced independently, are asking for waivers from SAG to get permission to release the actors to do promotion. We didn’t get any confirmation so far, but we are looking forward to getting these waivers and confirming that most of the talents will be in Venice. For now we have to wait.

Do you expect the independent films, the smaller movies, will get more attention because of this?

Of course, the independent films will in some ways be more prominent this year. Which is also wonderful. And we don’t have any confirmation yet but, for example, I know that Michael Mann is asking for the waiver to bring in the talents for Ferrari. And the others are as well. SAG has to first respond to the requests for waivers from production companies that need to start the production on new films or to restart production on films that were stopped [because of the strike], and then come the requests for promotion at the film festivals. So I think we have to wait a little bit longer and understand the process.

This is Venice’s 80th anniversary. Did you pick your lineup with that in mind, in terms of what directors and what films you wanted to celebrate?

No, not really. You know, this year we received more submissions than usual. We received more than 2,100 feature films and almost 1,900 short films. We went through the selection process without thinking of the anniversary at all. We are going to show a documentary, produced by Canal+, on the story [of the Venice Film Festival] from the beginning up to now with wonderful historical footage and brand new interviews with talents. It’s a beautiful documentary, but it’s the only occasion that we’ll be using to celebrate the anniversary during the festival.

Otherwise, it’s our usual mix of big names, highly-anticipated and respected movies, and a lot of discoveries. We have 23 films in competition, but 15 of the directors there are in competition for the first time. And if you look at the other sections, you can see there are lot of new discoveries. We have a real balance of great big names and new talents, as we have every year.

I have to ask why you decided to pick new films from both Roman Polanski [The Palace] and Woody Allen [Coup de Chance] in the official selection, out-of-competition?

It’s quite simple in a sense. I know the situation is tricky. But in the case of Polanski, we had to face the same situation three years ago, when we had Polanski in competition [with The Officer and the Spy]. I think that we have to make a distinction between the man and the artist. With Polanski, the man has acknowledged his bad behavior, he has apologized to his victim, the victim accepted the apology and has asked everyone to forget about the story. That is not happening, unfortunately. But I can’t be the judge of the man. I’m a festival director. I judge the quality of the films.

And Polanski is a great master, one of the last old great masters of European cinema. I don’t see any reason not to invite what could be his last work — though, I hope it isn’t. He’s only 93 years old, so he could go on making films, like Clint Eastwood or Manoel de Oliveira. But I don’t see any reason not to invite him. I’m ready to face the polemics again.

In the case of Woody Allen, [the accusations] are more than 20 years ago and have been dismissed [by authorities]. So, again, I don’t see any reasons to ban a film by Woody Allen from the festival. And it’s a very good movie, much better than the ones he’s done in the last dozen years or so. I’m happy to have him back in Venice.

Venice was instrumental in keeping the festival circuit going under COVID — you were the only major festival to be held in the midst of the first wave. What role do you see for the festival at the moment in reviving interest in theatergoing?

There was a major shift that happened during the pandemic. We have to remember, that the pandemic only ended about a year ago. Theaters only reopened a bit over a year ago. And we’ve had to convince people to go back to their old habits, to return to theaters. It wasn’t an easy process. It’s still a quite difficult and complicated situation. And the strike will not help, because it will mean some of the bigger films won’t be available for commercial release. The role of the festival is quite important because a festival like ours — like Cannes, like Berlin or Toronto — can help to inspire the desire to see movies in a cinema. I think it is already happening. The incredible success of Barbie and Oppenheimer shows that people are ready to get out of their own apartments and go to a theater if there are films that spark their interest. And the festivals can play a role in helping spark that interest.

Interview edited for length and clarity.



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