Everything Filmmakers + Moviegoers Need to Know About the Venice Film Festival

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The Venice International Film Festival will return in 2020, despite some uncertainty this year due to the global pandemic. Italy was among the countries hit hardest by the COVID-19 virus, so the decision from arts organization Venice Biennale to hold the 77th edition of the festival was not taken lightly, nor has there been any expectation for cinema to quickly return to business as usual. (The Cannes Film Festival was canceled this year, and the Tribeca Film Festival was postponed until 2021.)

However, Venice returns this September with a nearly full-strength line-up. Festival Artistic Director Alberto Barbera explained that, “the program of roughly 55 films will not be so different from the usual program.” Barbera believes that the return of “the first major international festival ... marks a restart. A signal not just of optimism but of support and solidarity towards the (global) film industry.” Careful precautions are being implemented this year, including required face masks for all indoor events and film screenings.

The 77th Venice fest will also continue without its usual slate of big Hollywood studio films. In the past few years, Barbera has been instrumental in solidifying Venice’s reputation as the place to see premieres with good awards season odds. Last year the superhero-inspired studio film “Joker” screened in competition and won the Golden Lion, the event’s top award, before scoring at the Academy Awards. And unlike Cannes, Venice has premiered titles from streaming behemoth Netflix, including the Golden Lion- and Oscar-winning “Roma” in 2018. However, COVID-19 has completely upended the film industry across the globe. American cinema in particular has been slow to return to production. Barbera noted that, for this year at least, “there won’t be any Netflix movies.”

Although Hollywood’s presence will be muted for 2020, A-list names have not disappeared from the festival. Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” starring two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand, is premiering at Venice, a simultaneous screening happening in tandem with the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. This is just one example of recent inter-festival solidarity, deemed necessary in this post-pandemic era of uncertainty for cinema. Outside of a few Hollywood films, Venice has relied on European arthouse films to fill its roster. No one can say for certain whether this year’s programming is just a small ripple in the festival’s identity; in 2021 the fest may be more able to welcome back Netflix and other studios.

Despite the circumstances, Venice’s return is highly anticipated by members of the industry. The festival has a reputation as both fun and accessible. Even without public red carpet events, tickets are still available to the general public. And it’s a safe bet that this year will be one of the most interesting in the event’s long history. Read on for our guide to learn everything you need to know about Venice, including its prestigious awards, how to get your film into the festival, and how to join the action.

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When did the Venice Film Festival start?

Venice is the oldest international film festival in the world. In 1932, the Esposizione d’Arte Cinematografica was added to the 18th edition of the Venice Biennale. The idea was to enrich the public arts forum with screenings of Italian and international cinema. The film festival’s three founders were the original president Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, the sculptor Antonio Maraini, and critic Luciano De Feo. The festival first ran Aug. 6–21, 1932, on the terrace of the Excelsior Palace Hotel. The opening film was “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” with a total of nine countries represented.

That first year included many films now considered cinema classics: “It Happened One Night”; “Grand Hotel”; “Frankenstein”; and René Clair’s “A nous la liberté.” Clair’s film was selected as the best film of the festival by an audience referendum. However, there were no official awards. That changed when the fest returned in 1934, when 19 countries were represented. The “Coppa Mussolini” was given by festival president Volpi to two films without the aid of a jury. When the festival returned in 1935, it became an annual event. The Palazzo del Cinema was built on Venice Lido in 1937 to house the festival.

The ensuing years of war were disruptive ones for the festival. The program was moved away from Venice for three years, 1940 to 1942, for fear of bombing. After the war, the Venice Film Festival moved to September in 1946 under an agreement with the newer Cannes Film Festival. In fact, the French festival was initiated after accusations of fascist manipulation of the awards and selections at Venice. However, the 1947 edition of the Venice festival was considered one of its most successful. That year’s festivities were held at the Ducal Palace, and 90,000 people were in attendance. By 1949, the festival had returned to the Palazzo del Cinema on Lido, its current home.

What has been Venice’s role in the international film festival landscape?

In 1915, Italy was an international cinema leader. Then the first World War happened, and filmmaking across the country stopped. By the 1920s, Italy significantly lagged behind America in film production. When the first Venice Film Festival was held in 1932, the country’s fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, wanted to change all that. So it’s no surprise that within a few years the festival had added their first award: the Mussolini Cup. Of course, the festival wasn’t solely founded to serve as a propaganda mouthpiece. But it’s impossible to deny the event’s appeal in attracting international interest in Italian film. Inviting global industry leaders and artists to beautiful Venice proved a remarkable strategy for increasing Italy’s reputation in cinema.

Controlling the fascists’ interest in the festival proved to be an impossible task. By 1937, the festival’s director, Volpi, could not prevent the dictator from interfering with the programming selection process. That year, the festival screened primarily propaganda films. The continued manipulation of the event, including accusations of Adolf Hitler’s involvement in the awards, led to the founding of Cannes. After World War II forced both festivals to suspend activities, Venice agreed to move their program and make way for the French festival. 

Venice recovered somewhat, with awards in the 1950s going to Akira Kurosawa and Luchino Visconti, and the presence of French masters such as Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard. However, the festival’s international esteem took another nosedive after widespread protests across Europe in 1968. Students demanded changes at the Venice Film Festival, arguing that it encouraged the commodification of art. Awards were suspended from 1969 to 1979, which further hurt the festival.

Things finally began to change when Carlo Lizzani took charge in 1979. The festival director added a new section, the “Mezzogiorno-Mezzanotte,” for spectacular films like Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The fest’s awards, including the famous Golden Lion, came back in 1980. Venice had finally hit upon a winning formula with its mix of auteurs and Hollywood glitz. Edition numbers came back. Similar to Cannes, sidebars were added. And over the years, American fare slowly slipped into the main competition. 

The festival is now famous for its Hollywood celebrity red carpet appearances. Netflix has found a home at Venice, despite opposition. American studio directors are heavily featured, with Steven Soderbergh, Todd Phillips, James Gray, and Noah Baumbauch premiering films last year. And a recent development for the festival has been a hot film market, with buyers coming to Venice Lido looking for talent—not to mention the Golden Lion’s increasing reputation as a predictor of Oscar success.

Who selects the films that screen at Venice?

Each year, submissions are open internationally for the different sections of the festival including the main competition. The festival director also sends out invitations to renowned filmmakers worldwide. The director then chooses the films for the entire festival, with assistance from their staff and global correspondents. For the 77th edition, that director is Alberto Barbera, who has served in that capacity since 2011. In fact, this is his second run as director; the first ran from 1999 to 2002. Barbera is often credited for inviting studio films to premiere at Venice that later go on to win major awards

Barbera’s introduction for the 76th edition noted that the festival would host many films addressing “the status of women in contemporary society.” However, only two films from last year’s fest were actually directed by women, sparking some controversy. For this year, the fest has a seemingly more inclusive line-up. “We didn’t choose films by using any kind of gender protocols,” Barbera told IndieWire in July. “We stuck to choosing films based only on their quality.... [We’re] extremely happy to have eight films directed by women this year out of 18 titles.”

Otherwise, there were difficulties in selecting films this year due to limited travel during the pandemic. “We know that all the filmmakers and talent from Europe will come,” Barbera said in July. “[However,] the borders of Europe have been closed. We have to wait a little bit more to understand if the restrictions will be less tough during the beginning of September...for the ones coming from other regions of the world.” Restrictions were somewhat eased, but the festival will be implementing strict precautions for international visitors. Certain production companies and distributors decided against submitting this year. 

The 2020 festival does include one film shot during the pandemic: Andrea Segre’s “Molecole,” screening out of competition as the pre-opening film. The filmmaker shot it just before the closing of Venice on March 8, when the city’s streets were empty.

How can I submit a film to Venice?

Submissions are done entirely through the Venice Film Festival’s official website, via a pre-selection form or through invitations. Filmmakers cannot use Withoutabox or similar services to apply. Submissions this year were due June 21, or May 31 for VR work. Filmmakers can submit more than one more film, but cannot resubmit films from previous years. The festival accepts features, shorts, virtual reality, and interactive films. Films can be narrative, documentaries, experimental, or otherwise.

The film festival follows a simple set of regulations for submissions each year. Films must have been completed recently, generally not earlier than one year before the festival. Submissions can’t have been presented at a prior Venice edition, even as a work in progress. Nor can a submission have already been screened publicly, including at competing and non-competing sections of any international or national film festival (one exception is interactive works, which can screen in their country of origin prior to the festival). Films also cannot have been broadcast on film. They also can’t have been released on the Internet, on DVD or Blu-Ray, or any other format. However, private screenings with no press in attendance, including at film markets, is acceptable.

Artists using the submission form will be asked to upload a copy of their film. Feature filmmakers can alternately send a copy in a Digital Cinema Package (DCP), DVD, or Blu-Ray format. More details about formatting can be found here. The Venice Biennale will consider works-in-progress as long as the film is completed by the festival delivery date. All films not in Italian should be subtitled in Italian or in English (including English-language films). Interactive VR films can send a link for download; immersive works can be 360 video, 3 DoF, or 6 DoF (Degrees of Freedom). 

Submissions require a fee of 120€ for features and VR works, or 60€ for short films. An extra 20€ is required for submissions using the late deadlines. In addition to the film, the fee, and the form, filmmakers should send an information sheet, including: a synopsis, notes on the film or director, a CV for first- or second-time filmmakers, and some production context. More answers to questions can be found at the FAQ or through inquiry at this email address.

What awards does Venice present, and who votes on them?

As the world’s oldest film festival, the Venice film festival has some of the longest running awards for cinema. Their first official award, the Mussolini Cup, was introduced in 1934. The festival’s first international jury was assembled in 1936. The festival convenes new juries every year to assign prizes for the films in the competition categories. For 2020, these categories are the Venezia 77 or main competition; the Orizzonti; the Venice Virtual Reality Section; and the special “Luigi De Laurentiis” award given to the best debut film. Juries are composed of leading film professionals, including actors, directors, producers, and critics. 

By far the festival’s most prestigious award is the Golden Lion, or Leone d’Oro. The famous prize is given each year to the best feature film in the main competition. It replaced the Mussolini Cup in 1949, as the Italian dictator was no longer in power after WWII. The winged lion statue is inspired by the symbol of Venice, San Marco’s Lion, which is seen all over the city, including on the city’s flag. In fact, the award was originally known as the Golden Lion of San Marco before changing to the simpler Golden Lion in 1954.

The Golden Lion carries with it much prestige, decorating many acclaimed directors, including Kurosawa, Luis Buñuel, and Michelangelo Antonioni. Last year, Hollywood studio film and superhero spin-off “Joker” won the prize, which many saw as evidence of a recent trend at Venice toward screening big studio fare in competition.

During certain editions of the fest, a special Golden Lion is given to honor lifetime achievements. This year the festival will honor Oscar winner Tilda Swinton with such an award. Other big awards at the festival include the Silver Lion, or Leone d’Argento, which is considered second place. Another Silver Lion is given to a third film, honoring a director. The Coppa Volpi, introduced in 1935 and named after the first festival president, is given to the best actor and best actress. The fest’s Orizzonti section, an international program with its own selection of films, has its own jury and prizes as a sidebar to the major competition, covering the “latest trends and aesthetics” in cinema and filmmaking. 

This year, the main competition’s jury is headed by two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, making it the second year in a row the jury president has been a woman. The jury also includes British director Joanna Hogg, French actress Ludivine Sagnier, and Austrian filmmaker Veronika Franz. The prevalence of women at the 77th edition is most likely a response to criticisms in the past over female representation at Venice, with some commentators opining that this year’s programming partly addresses such backlashes. Festival director Barbera said, “Cate Blanchett is not just an icon of contemporary cinema.... Her commitment in the artistic and humanitarian fields and to the protection of the environment, as well as her defense of the emancipation of women in a film industry still coming to terms with male prejudice, have made her an inspiration for society as a whole.”

Prior to the pandemic, Blanchett said, “Every year I look expectantly to the selection at Venice and every year it is surprising and distinct.” That’s proven especially true for the 2020 edition. Venice will look quite different this year as the pandemic has prevented the participation of many major studio titles. Accordingly, the 77th edition’s main competition skews toward international arthouse productions.

What are the Venice award categories?

The Venice Film Festival has several sections where films compete. This year the main juried section, the Venezia 77 Competition, will likely present the following:

Golden Lion, or Leone d’Oro, for Best Picture
Silver Lion for Grand Jury Prize
Silver Lion, or Leone d’Argento, for Best Director
Volpi Cup, or Coppa Volpi, for best actor and best actress
Special Jury Prize
Award for Best Screenplay, also known as the Golden Osella
Marcello Mastroianni Award, named in honor of the Italian actor, given to emerging acting talent

Swinton will also receive her Special Lion honor. At one point, the Golden Osella was also given for a project with the best “technical contribution,” as well as cinematography and music. However, the last time these awards made an appearance was 2012.

The Orizzonti Section is an international competition for the latest trends and aesthetics and filmmaking, including “custom-format” works. They have the following prizes:

The Orizzonti Award for Best Film
The Orizzonti Award for Best Director
The Special Orizzonti Jury Prize (for feature films)
The Orizzonti Award for Best Actor
The Orizzonti Award for Best Actress
The Orizzonti Award for Best Screenplay
The Orizzonti Award for Short Film

The Venice Virtual Reality is part of the Biennale College Cinema program and has its own jury. It will be conducted entirely online in 2020. Last year, they awarded the following prizes:

Grand Jury Prize for Best VR Immersive Work
Best VR Immersive Experience for Interactive Content
Best VR Immersive Story for Linear Content

The Venice Classics section ran Aug. 25–31 in Bologna this year in collaboration with the Il Cinema Ritrovato as a sign of solidarity. The films are then planned to screen in Venice over several months. In the past, the section’s jury of cinema history students gave out the Venice Classics Award for Best Restored Film. They may also choose a film for a Best Documentary on Cinema Award.

Since 2007, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award has been dedicated to important personalities of contemporary cinema. The award gets its name from the Swiss watch-and-clock manufacturer, which co-sponsors the award as well as the festival.

Also held during the festival are two parallel sections. Venice Days, or Giornate degli Autori, is modeled after Cannes’ famous sidebars. They have three awards:

Giornate degli Autori Award, given by the official jury
BNL People's Choice Award, for films among the official selection of the sidebar
Label Europa Cinemas, for films produced and co-produced in Europe

Another parallel section is the International Film Critics’ Week, or Settimana Internazionale della Critica, which gives out the following prizes:

Grand Prize for Best Feature Film
Verona Film Club Award for Most Innovative Feature
Mario Serandrei — Hotel Saturnia Award for Best Technical Contribution on a Feature
Best Short Film
Best Director of a Short Film
Best Technical Contribution for a Short Film

All films in the Official Venezia 77 Selection and in the parallel sections are eligible for the Luigi De Laurentiis Award Lion of the Future. This award is given to the director and producer of a debut film, who receive a total of $100,000.

How often have films with Venice premieres gone on to earn other accolades?

In the past few years, Venice has become the European festival to see films with Academy Award potential. Many of the films premiering at the festival have received nominations at the Oscars or other major awards. This has been an ongoing development at Venice for decades, but the inviting nature of the festival’s most recent format is often ascribed to current festival director Barbera, who has worked to streamline the fest since 2011 and make it attractive to Hollywood features looking for splashy premieres. Barbera has also kept the door open to Netflix, in comparison with Cannes’ and other fests’ refusal to screen titles from the streaming distributor.

These have been critical developments for the festival’s profile. Netflix’s “Marriage Story” premiered at Venice in 2019 before going on to secure six nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a win for Laura Dern. The previous year, Netflix premiered the Coen brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” at Venice, which went on to earn three Oscar nominations. It’s not just Netflix, either. Venice has become a great place for premiering any Hollywood studio film with Academy Award potential. In 2018, Warner Bros.’ “A Star is Born” premiered out of competition at Venice, then earned a whopping eight Oscar nominations and a win for Best Original Song. 

The Golden Lion, Venice’s top award, has itself become a predictor of success during awards season. Last year, Hollywood box office smash “Joker” won the Golden Lion before going on to win two 2020 Oscars, including Best Actor, plus nominations for best picture and director. In 2018, Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical “Roma,” from Netflix, won the Golden Lion and went on to win the directing Oscar—a repeat victory for Cuarón, who has earned numerous Golden Lions, including for the Oscar-winning “Gravity.”

And it doesn’t stop there! The main competition jury for 2018 was headed by Guillermo del Toro, whose film “The Shape of Water” won the Golden Lion in 2017, which also, as you may already have guessed, won the Academy Award for best picture. That means for the past three years alone, the winner of the Golden Lion went on to win major awards at the Oscars, not to mention the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, BAFTA Film Awards, and more. Clearly, Venice has been the place to see the premieres of future award winners. (For this year at least, it remains to be seen, as the global pandemic will keep many Hollywood films away.)

When and where does the Venice Film Festival happen?

Despite uncertainty during the global pandemic beginning this spring, the Venice Film Festival will take place this year. “[T]he idea that Venice would be cancelled like so many other events was a very dominant one,” Barbera told Variety. But once it became clear that they could safely “have the festival...with a significant number of films,” the Venice Biennale felt compelled to lead the charge in reopening the cinema. Barbera asserted that, “to restart with festivals, to prove that we can go back—in total security and tranquility—into movie theaters is crucial.... Once audiences return to festivals, other audiences will also be more prone to go see movies.”

The festival, including its two parallel sections, will take place Sept. 2–12 at Venice Lido, a smaller island adjacent to Venice in the same lagoon. The main headquarters for the film festival is the Palazzo del Cinema. The modernist building was inaugurated in 1937 for the fifth edition of the festival. The building boasts a 1032-seat theater, the Sala Grande, where the main screenings and awards take place.

Other venues include the Palazzo del Casinò, the Palabiennale, and the Sala Giardino. This year, the festival will also install two outdoor arenas on the Lido (including one in a skating rink), and move the VR Competition online. And while there have been some changes for this edition, including a slight reduction in the number of films, Barbera told Deadline: “I am extremely pleased that the Biennale Cinema can be held.... Without forgetting the countless victims of these past few months to whom due tribute shall be paid, the first international festival following the forced interruption dictated by the pandemic becomes the meaningful celebration of the reopening we all looked forward to, and a message of concrete optimism for the entire world of cinema which has suffered greatly from this crisis.”

How can I attend or participate?

Many of the film screenings each year are open to the public. However, some of the festival screens exclusively for attendees over the age of 18 with accreditation. There are three main “accreditation typologies”: Press, Industry, and Cinema (for filmmakers). Once acquired, the accreditation is non-transferable, and can only be partially refunded in certain circumstances. Additionally, only one accreditation per person can be acquired. There are also special category accreditations for film delegates and university students, as well as virtual reality packages and promotions for attendees aged under 26 or over 60. Accreditation must be paid for with either credit or debit; cash is not accepted.

Each year, the festival is held at Lido in the Venetian Lagoon. There are multiple ways to make it to the island, including by train and car. In 2020, special guidelines are in place due to the pandemic that will make seating at the screenings limited. Attendees with accreditation can pick up their passes in the days prior to the festival. Once acquired, pass holders can access all screenings marked “Tutti gli accrediti” with no priority of access. Industry, press, and film delegation pass holders can additionally access screenings marked “Press Industry” with priority access depending on badge color. Screenings marked “Pubblico/Tutti gli accrediti” give priority to the public, followed by accredited visitors. 

Accredited visitors can also use their pass to book screenings at the Sala Grande, the main screening venue, using the website. Tickets should be booked the same day as the screening, and if attendees can’t attend, they must cancel 30 minutes before the screening or potentially forfeit future tickets at Sala Grande. The same policy is in effect for canceling VR tickets. Opening and closing ceremonies are by invitation only.

Tickets to the annual Venice Film Festival can be bought here, with more information on ticket availability and subscriptions here. This year, due to the pandemic, special guidelines are in place for everyone attending. Visitors will need to have their temperature taken at one of the nine gates set up around Venice Lido. Additionally, visitors arriving from outside of Europe must take a COVID-19 test. Contract tracing will be used when necessary for attendees of indoor events. Red carpet events are not open to the public. Most importantly, film screenings at the festival will require the audience to wear face masks throughout the film and while indoors. This differs from movie theaters throughout Italy, which now allow attendees to remove their masks once a film starts. Festival-goers will also have to reserve their seat online to ensure that every adjacent seat is left vacant.

Hopefully these provisions are successful, and the 2020 edition of the festival is an unqualified success amid a new era for the industry and world.

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