- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2002

ROME — The Venice Film Festival's prestige has been sinking in recent years, with a Golden Lion award that doesn't roar nowadays so much as squeak.
That's according to the festival's new director, Moritz de Hadeln, speaking as he prepares for Thursday's gala opening and what he hopes will be a march back to glory. Mr. de Hadeln says poor award choices and haphazard organization have damaged the world's oldest film festival.
"American distributors have told me recently that they consider that the Lion of Venice doesn't have the commercial value it should have because in the last years it's been given erratically," he says.
"One has the impression that every year this show is improvised from nothing, and it comes like a miracle out of nowhere. I think it's about time to stabilize the structures."
Mr. de Hadeln took over less than six months ago after running the Berlin film festival for two decades. Considering his short time in Venice, the 62-year-old Swiss boss has compiled a remarkably full program.
The 59th Venice Film Festival includes more than 75 feature films, from Hollywood to art-house productions, as well as dozens of shorts and retrospectives.
It opens with the premiere of "Frida," the long-awaited biography of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, starring Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas. Other crowd-grabbers include "Road to Perdition," starring Paul Newman and Tom Hanks and directed by Sam Mendes of "American Beauty," and Steven Soderbergh's "Full Frontal," an experimental film with Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt. The festival ends with the awards ceremony Sunday.
Big names expected to turn up at the Lido Island, where the show takes place, include Mr. Hanks, Harrison Ford, Julianne Moore and Sophia Loren, who is promoting her son Edoardo Ponti's feature debut, "Between Strangers."
The jury for the main Venice 59 prize is led by Chinese actress Gong Li.
Mr. de Hadeln has tried to win public interest with big-name pictures while maintaining credibility with lesser-known art films.
One criticism of Venice in recent years has been that it has favored esoteric movies that end up doing little international business.
France's Cannes film festival in spring and the Toronto festival, which opens next week, sometimes draw the opposite criticism: that they cater too much to commercial Hollywood pictures.
Following Venice by a week and far closer to U.S. markets, the Toronto festival offers Hollywood a better showcase for films heading to U.S. theaters in the fall and over the holidays.
"It's a delicate balancing act for any European film festival, which has to walk between the commercial, popular American film and their mission to bring to the public lesser-known cinema," says Jonathan Kuntz, a film historian at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Mr. Kuntz says Venice also may have suffered because of its timing: Scheduled too late for the major U.S. summer pictures and too early for the winter offerings, it may be missing out on the big American draws.
This year, for instance, Venice had hoped to premiere Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, only to find it wasn't ready. "The Hours," starring Nicole Kidman and based on Michael Cunningham's hit novel, was pulled shortly before the festival because it, too, wasn't ready for public viewing.
Steve Gaydos, author of the Variety Guide to Film Festivals, blames the festival's troubles on Hollywood's focus on weekend box-office grosses, which he says makes it hard for art films to succeed in the United States.
"The value of winning a film festival probably means less because getting a big weekend is what means something," he says. "Winning the Venice Film Festival is not going to get you a big weekend."
Still, Mr. de Hadeln is confident that Venice can be one of the places where grand works of art will be discovered.
"The show has in the eyes of many somehow lost its No. 1 position," he says. "That's what we're trying to gain back."

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