Alberto Barbera on Dip in Women Directors, Netflix, And U.S Studios

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Venice Film Festival artistic director Alberto Barbera seems pretty relaxed after announcing what, on paper, looks like one of the strongest Lido lineups in recent memory. There is of course an underlying fear that the Delta variant could spoil the party, but he doesn’t seem too worried.

Barbera spoke to Variety about the lower number of women directors in competition this year and the fact that Hollywood is back in full force — alongside Netflix.

Last year there were eight films directed by women in competition, this year there are five. What happened?

We are talking about small variations [in numbers] that can occur even purely by chance. Two years ago, there were two [women directors in competition]. Last year, there were eight. This year, there are five. On the whole, if you look at the total number of submissions, the percentage of films by women directors last year was around 28%; this year it’s 26%; two years ago it was 25%. We can of course consider this year as a small setback. I think it was probably caused by the fact that the pandemic impacted the production of films directed by females more than those directed by men. But I’m convinced that it’s a momentary lapse because I think the momentum towards greater gender balance is unstoppable.

You mentioned in the press conference that, thematically, women dominate.

Yes. If I have to single out a dominant theme this year in Venice it’s certainly the female condition, and not just in films directed by women, but in ones directed by men as well who are well aware not just that there is a problem, but that women today are taking on an increasingly predominant position [in society] — taking on roles that used to be a man’s prerogative. There are lots of films with women at their center this year in Venice and at least two on the theme of violence against women. Two films that I think will become part of the contemporary conversation around the #MeToo movement and, in particular, about trials. One is “Les Choses Humans” by Yvan Attal, the story of a trial where it has to be decided if there is blatant violence, or if instead a woman did not express her lack of consent to a sexual act strongly enough. And then there is Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel” that transposes to the Middle Ages an analogous situation.

You got titles from Warner Bros., Disney and Universal. Was it tough to lure the studios back?

Not really. Up until recently, Americans were all in a lockdown, which was much more rigid than what European productions had to contend with. In Europe, film production continued, as did some festivals when it was possible. Americans shuttered for a year; films were not released; talent and directors were prevented from attending festivals, even when they would have wanted to. I can tell you that last year several U.S. directors tried to get a studio or Netflix to come to Venice. It was impossible. But now almost all Americans are vaccinated and they can’t wait to restart, which means promoting and releasing movies. What better opportunity to do this than Venice 2021 in September? Venice is enticing. It’s at the start of the new season; it’s a launching pad that has proven its worth. We’ve been launching films towards the Oscar every year, and often they’ve won. So we met halfway, with me showing great interest and guaranteeing that Venice would take place amid conditions of protection and safety and the majors leaped on the opportunity. It wasn’t that complicated.

What is the health safety situation?

It hasn’t improved enormously, like we all hoped. But I am confident that we can hold the festival in total safety, like we did last year, but with more talent, attendees, spectators. And with more user-friendly controls. In the worst case scenario, it will be like last year in terms of 50% capacity in the screening venues, but with more people and talent and a much greater opportunity to promote films

Netflix has three films this year: Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God,” both in competition, and Brazilian director Alexandre Moratto’s “7 Prisoners” in Horizons Extra. Do you know if they will get theatrical releases?

I’ve heard that, by contract, Sorrentino has to get a theatrical release and I think Jane Campion will as well, though I have no idea how the window will work. I think only Netflix knows that. But I think for those two films, a theatrical release is a certainty.

Guillermo Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” was supposed to go to Venice. What happened?

Guillermo wanted to return to Venice after “The Shape of Water” [which won the 2017 Golden Lion] and having been president of the jury the following year. He was literally racing against the clock to finish the film in time. Up until a week ago, he hoped to still make it, though Searchlight had already realized it was impossible, because they still have to record some of the music and do other post production work.

How much did the proximity with Cannes and Toronto impact the Venice selection?

Initially, the greater proximity with Cannes in July had me a but worried. But that preoccupation evaporated quite soon when I realized there were lots more available films than expected due to the pandemic. And that their quality level was so high. We see the same films as Cannes, but It’s been a serene selection process, not more competitive than in the past. Regarding Toronto, they went through months of greater uncertainty than we did. At first they seemed destined to have a mostly virtual edition, just like last year. Now, fortunately, the situation is improving a bit, so I think they will be able to have a stronger edition in terms of in-person attendance. Toronto has announced their Gala Screenings, but will announce the full program at the beginning of August, probably because they are waiting to understand exactly what the situation will be. So, for this reason, there was no problem with Toronto.

Venice is not a mere marketing tool for big movies. Talk to me about this year’s discoveries

We have 21 films in the main competition, 10 of which are by directors who have never been in competition –– not just in Venice, but also in other major festivals. That means we gambled on directors we consider interesting, worthy of being elevated to the main competition. We did this also to prove that Venice is not a mere showcase for the obvious high-profile titles from Hollywood or Europe but instead continues to be a festival for auteurs and discoveries and to help provide visibility to cinema coming from lesser known areas.

My purpose is to work with contemporary cinema from a 360-degree perspective without leaving out any of its components: big spectacular movies of great quality from the U.S. studios; auteur cinema in the classic sense of the word; but also films from emerging cinematographies by directors who have still not emerged and are looking to be consecrated by a big festival. We have proved that we are able to promote these films. The distinctive trait of Venice in recent years is the attempt to hold together all these different “souls” that could in themselves generate three or four different festivals, depending which aspect you want to give more prominence to. But I think that a major event has to try to display the condition of cinema today in its diversity and multiplicity of approaches. We know that there are different audiences out there to whom we offer different types of films. That’s what we do.

The Venice Film Festival runs from Sept. 1-11.