How Is the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Truce Holding Up?

The power play within the fall festival trifecta — Venice, Telluride and Toronto, plus more recently the New York Film Festival — has caused ups and downs in their relationships in recent years.

But whether the world’s top fall fests profess mutual respect or not, to varying degrees they fought hard with each other for premieres — especially for the big awards contenders. In particular, Venice and Toronto.

Now they’ve declared a post-pandemic alliance. But how is this truce actually playing out?

“This year, we’ve moved away from competing with our colleagues at autumn festivals and commit instead to collaboration,” said the chiefs of these events in a July joint announcement.

“We are sharing ideas and information. We are offering our festivals as a united platform for the best cinema we can find,” they vowed. “We’re here to serve the filmmakers, audiences, journalists and industry members who keep the film ecosystem thriving. We need to do that together.”

Telluride since then has been forced to cancel its physical edition due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in the U.S., though they have announced what their lineup would have been.

Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera, after announcing the Lido’s relatively robust lineup in late July, called Telluride’s sudden cancellation “an unexpected blow” since film companies had decided their marketing strategies “looking at the possibility of doing Telluride, then Venice, then Toronto to promote their films for fall releases” for which this year “they need stronger promotion than usual.”

Instead, after Telluride’s cancellation, several companies that “had been really convinced” about doing the trifecta “went back to doubting and decided to wait for better times ahead,” Barbera notes.

One example is Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks,” with Bill Murray and Rashida Jones, backed by A24 and Apple, which reportedly got cold feet and decided to hold back.

But regardless of the Telluride snag, the trifecta’s basic attitude has changed this year due to the coronavirus crisis.

The fall fest chiefs started talking to each other in April and decided if there was a film they all liked and wanted to promote together, they would “find a way of doing that,” Barbera says.

Most symbolically, this will happen with Frances McDormand-starrer “Nomadland,” directed by Chloe Zhao. The timely drama in which McDormand plays a woman in rural Nevada who reacts to economic collapse by becoming a modern-day nomad will world-premiere simultaneously Sept. 11 in Venice and Toronto. It will be preceded by virtual introductions by McDormand — who also produced — and Zhao, who earned acclaim with 2017 breakout “The Rider,” and more recently helmed upcoming Marvel Studios release “The Eternals.”

Other titles that Venice and Toronto are sharing — though not simultaneously — include Italian documaker Gianfranco Rosi’s Middle East-set “Notturno” and Frederick Wiseman’s Boston-set doc “City Hall”; Indian helmer Chaitanya Tamhane’s “The Disciple”; Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić’s “Quo Vadis, Aida”; Palestinian directorial duo Tarzan and Arab Nasser’s “Gaza Mon Amour”; Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s English-language drama “Pieces of a Woman”; and Mexican auteur Michel Franco’s “New Order.”

Barbera also readily admits that with the 2021 Oscars moved to April, the role of Venice and Toronto as awards-season drivers is bound to diminish, which is “not a big deal” since right now “the most pressing issue is getting people into movie theaters” and being a magnet for that restart is their “fundamental role.”

“It’s obviously important to have both festivals to launch a film,” says European sales agent Michael Weber, whose shingle the Match Factory is handling world sales on “Notturno” and “New Order.”

But in this exceptional year, “one could also be happy to just have one launching pad,” Weber adds. Another title he is selling, “Never Gonna Snow Again,” from Poland’s Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert, for now is just doing Venice.

Weber points out that “Toronto significantly downsized their program” this year — 50 titles vis-a-vis more than 300 titles last year — and that “also changed the game plan.”

The Venice lineup, by contrast, has only been slightly slimmed-down to roughly 60 pics, with the core of the fest’s official selection intact.
Venice, in general, will be a bit more European, while Toronto is launching some English-language films that the Italian fest does not have, such as Kate Winslet-starrer “Ammonite,” “The Father,” toplining Anthony Hopkins, and also Spike Lee’s filmed version of David Byrne’s hit Broadway show “American Utopia,” which will be Toronto’s opener.

Since one aspect of “American Utopia” is the importance of voting and the acceptance of others — key issues in the U.S. as the country faces election in November — it made perfect sense for Participant Media, which produced the film, to opt for a North American premiere.

But Participant decided to launch its doc “Final Account,” a film from director Like Holland about the legacy of Nazism, at Venice, where in past editions it’s launched other high-profile docs such as “Human Flow” and “Aquarela.”

Asked about the new spirit of solidarity among the fall fests, Participant CEO David Linde says he “applauds this kind of collaboration” which comes “at
a very challenging moment.”

Will this spirit last?

“I imagine everyone, including the festivals themselves, looks forward to ex­­ploring how this kind of collaboration can work. So, that’s exciting,” says Linde. “But I also imagine it’s something that will require a lot of reflection and work.”

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