If there is one criteria for selection to the Venice Film Festival, it's a film's ability to captivate, the festival's director says.
That means no fidgeting in the audience.
"I think I never laughed or cried as much as I did for this year's selection," said festival director Marco Mueller, who raises the curtain Wednesday on the 66th Venice Film Festival, his sixth as director.
One of those chosen films is Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story," his first Venice entry after winning the top prize twice in Cannes. By many measures, landing Moore's film is a coup for Venice.
"I think Michael has had a terrific time in Cannes. He needed a change. And we needed a different Michael Moore film. This one is incredibly symphonic," said Mueller, who has known Moore for 20 years and premiered 1999's "The Awful Truth," at the Locarno Film Festival when he was director there.
Much of Mueller's approach to luring films to the Venice Lido is personal. He speaks seven languages fluently, including Chinese, which has long made him a bridge to the West for Asian filmmakers. He spends copious amounts of time viewing films, more than 2,000 a year, and making pitches for why Venice is the perfect launching pad for anything from Hollywood fare to art house talent, despite lacking a formal film market.
This year, the Sept. 2-12 Venice film festival is a week later than usual, bumping up against the much-larger Toronto Film Festival, showing some 80 films in contrast to the more than 300 at the Sept. 10-19 Toronto festival.
About 20 films making their world premiere at Venice will travel on to Toronto, where most of the dealmaking for the North American market is made.
But Mueller has no intention of bringing a film market to Venice.
"It is quite a luxury to be told by filmmakers and producers: 'Never start a market in Venice, because it is the only place where we can meet people and see other people's films,'" he said.
Dealmaking in Venice happens in a much more informal way, Mueller said.
"When people meet, They may say, 'I have this new idea for a film.' Then all of a sudden on the terrace of the Hotel des Bains, a deal memo is signed for the production of a brand new film," he said.
Mueller, 56, is convinced that a festival showing can change the trajectory of a film's success and that Venice is a high enough profile to provide the ideal platform for middle-range budget Hollywood films.
During last year's festival, a founder of Sony Classic saw a man using a chronometer to measure the applause during the premiere of "Rachel Getting Married," which lasted nine or 10 minutes, Mueller said. The man was from a group of German film distributors, who widened the release of the film based on the applause from Venice's audience.
Likewise, Kathryn Bigelow's "Hurt Locker," received a 10-minute standing ovation, despite mixed critical reaction. "Still, the film traveled on the first impact, on the first response in Venice. It found a North American deal in Toronto and went on to become one of the box office hits of last season," Mueller said.
"I really try to prove we can prolong the life of a film _ even though it may be just in the realm of a very long festival circulation _ because of the very high visibility we create," Mueller said.
Not all films get distribution deals, and Mueller said he is in talks with the founders of a Web portal for art house films, http://www.theauteurs.com, to seek a formula for offering films from Cannes, Venice and Berlin festivals that don't get picked up within six months.
This year's Venice selection includes films from 32 countries, a record, with a large number U.S. and Italian films, 17 and 22 entries respectively. For Mueller, one of his biggest coups was luring four films from India, a country with a huge internal market and foreign distribution determined by large Indian populations abroad.
"They were always, we don't need festivals," Mueller said. But he attracted both Bollywood extravaganzas and art house films by persuading their creators that a crossover film would have another response from a Western audience.
Closer to home, an Italian film opens the festival for the first time in 20 years. Giuseppe Tornatore, who won an Oscar in 1998 for "Cinema Paradiso," will premiere "Baaria," a film about life in a small town in his native Sicily.
"Baaria is really what the (Italian) industry needed at this time," Mueller said. "A film which proves it makes a lot of sense for the industry to invest large sums in a creator's dream, because then the industry can go back to being the dream machine."
"The first time I saw Tornatore's film, I cried and laughed as if I was 14 years old," he said.
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