VENICE – For several years now, the Venice Film Festival has overlapped with not one but two rival North American fests. The “Toronto effect” has been felt since the two festivals started sharing a few days of September calendar space: the exodus of journalists from the Lido in the last couple of days is all too noticeable, though Venice organizers have to accept it, obligingly front-loading their schedule with their highest-profile premieres to as to allow sufficient room for the first wave of buzz and publicity (not to mention reasonable travel time for talent) before the next one at Toronto.
And here and there, they still manage the odd unique coup. Terry Gilliam’s “The Zero Theorem” may have met with a mixed reception, but Venice has it all to itself regardless; meanwhile, Tom Hardy’s one-man-show “Locke” (review coming later today) is a surprise festival hit that won’t be going to Toronto.
But if Venice has mostly made its peace with Toronto’s encroachment, Telluride proved to be an unexpected thorn in the Italians’ side this year. For the first time ever, the exclusive showcase festival in the Colorado jumped the gun on three films that had been set to make their world premieres on the Lido: Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” and Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known,” both in Competition, and Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto,” in the Horizons sidebar.
In previous years, Telluride’s famously short-notice sneak previews have snapped at the heels of Venice’s premieres, often screening in the US within mere hours of Lido press screenings, but this is the first year Telluride actively leapfrogged Venice to nab the first screening of a film. And not by hours, either. The margin with “Palo Alto” was pretty fine, but the more high-profile Morris and Glazer films played in the US a full five days before their Venice dates — an eternity in film festival time. Because of Telluride’s non-official nature, Venice gets to retain the “world premiere” claim, but it’s a pretty meaningless one when the internet has already been flooded with reviews, the buzz machine already set in motion, before the veil has officially been removed.
I’m told that Venice fest director Alberto Barbera had received fair warning about the Morris doc, but was blindsided when “Under the Skin” — among the most broadly anticipated titles in his lineup this year, thanks to its director’s lengthy absence and the star presence of Scarlett Johansson — turned up on the Telluride roster. Forewarned or otherwise, he was not amused. “It was done behind everybody”s back,” he fumed to Variety, announcing his intention to take action against the possibility of this happening in future. “For next year, we will all have to be agreed on the ground rules: if a movie is in competition in Venice it has to screen here first.”
Venice has long held a strict policy of only admitting world premieres into Competition — a rigid rule that not even Cannes shares. It’s is excessive? Some may think so, but with Toronto already putting the squeeze on Venice’s publicity, and increasing numbers of media outlets economising by only sending journalists to one fall fest (with the bigger, starrier Toronto usually the victor), it’s understandable that they want to give themselves every possible advantage. (Tellingly, you don’t hear Toronto getting equally worked up about Telluride stealing seven of their world premieres, but that’s because their programme is so vast, so can afford to lose a few firsts.)
Bandera is obvious speaking partly out of immediate pique — like online film critics, festival programmers’ desire to be first isn’t always matched by the real-world significance of the privilege. But he has fair reason to be concerned in the longer term. If Telluride expands this trend in future years, getting more and more first showings of Venice’s top-tier world premieres — ones the European fest is already having to fight to get ahead of Toronto and the fast-ascending New York Film Festival — many outlets may decide that Telluride and Toronto cover their bases sufficiently, and that Venice coverage can go by the wayside. (Few are the outlets that can do all three: it’s logistically difficult and prohibitively expensive.)
Of course, it’s ultimately up to the film’s distributors or caretakers which festival invitations they choose to accept — though if you accept a Venice competition berth, it is on the formal understanding that they get the world premiere. (Furthermore, at this point, perhaps it’s time to recalibrate the definition of “world premiere” itself.)
I’d argue that “Under the Skin” didn’t benefit from bowing first in Telluride, which is generally a showcase for more mainstream prestige fare, rather than avant garde cinema. Though our own Greg Ellwood was an exception, the reactions out of Colorado were several degrees chillier than those that greeted it on the Lido a few days later: it’d be a divisive film in any context, but contentiousness is easier to parlay into good publicity on the highbrow European festival circuit than its more market-minded North American counterpart.
None of this is Telluride’s fault, of course, and hats off to them for wanting a challenging purebred art film in amongst the Oscar-bait vehicles. No festival has better reasons than another for wanting to be first, though sadly, as long as first reviews remain a priority for film journalists in the hit-fixated internet age, world premieres — real ones, not five-day-late ones — will remain an understandable priority for A-list festival programmers. More communication between festivals would be a good thing, but until they all join forces to form one gargantuan, month-long film festival in a neutral territory — Lagos is lovely this time of year — there probably isn’t an immediately amicable solution.