VENICE—Organizing the Venice International Film Festival, one of the few major cultural events in Europe taking place despite the coronavirus, has been a daily test of Roberto Cicutto’s nerves.
The head of the cultural institution that stages the festival, which runs from Sept. 2-12, feared that resurgent infections could force the event’s cancellation at any time, and that travel bans could impede the attendance of stars and fans alike.
Mr. Cicutto decided in June that going ahead was worth the risk, even if the festival’s 77th iteration on Venice’s Lido island was smaller and less glitzy than usual.
The event will lose money this year, Mr. Cicutto said, but just holding it will serve as a sign of recovery for the battered movie industry—and for the city of Venice, which is struggling through the leanest tourist season in memory.
Travel bans and recession mean Venice has had fewer visitors this summer than for decades. Dependence on tourism is one reason why Italy and other Mediterranean countries are suffering a deeper economic downturn in the wake of the pandemic than Europe as a whole.
By July, only around 70% of Venice’s hotels had reopened after their forced closure during Italy’s lockdown. The film festival induced another 10% of hotels to reopen, said Claudio Scarpa, head of the Venice hoteliers’ association.
“Unfortunately we are still far from the occupancy levels we normally see at this time of year,” he said.
Only about 45% of available beds are booked this September, a month when Venice’s hotels are usually fully booked. Venetian hotel revenues so far this year are 70% below the comparable period last year.
American tourists are particularly missed. They normally make up about one-fifth of Venice’s visitors, but they spend more than most. The absence of Russian, Chinese and Middle Eastern tourists is also painful, said Mr. Scarpa.
The broader film industry isn’t faring much better. In Europe, box-office revenue fell by two-thirds to $1.2 billion in the first half of this year versus the comparable period of 2019, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence, as movie theaters closed for months because of the pandemic. In North America, movie ticket sales have reached $2 billion this year, compared with $11.4 billion for the whole of 2019, according to media-measurement company Comscore.
Since March, most of this year’s movie festivals have been canceled, including the Cannes Film Festival in France. Others, such as the London Film Festival in October, will be largely virtual, relying on digital screenings and presentations. Next year’s Oscars ceremony has been delayed by nearly two months to April 25.
“It’s a privilege, a pleasure and a great honor to be here. It seems a miracolo,” Ms. Blanchett, who is chairing the Venice festival’s jury this year, told reporters last week.
To avoid an outbreak, organizers are counting on practical precautions rather than a miracle. One big change is that movie-lovers can’t see the stars on the red carpet of the Palazzo del Cinema, where fans normally throng behind crush barriers to shake hands and take selfies with their idols. Instead, seven-foot-high walls block off the view of the red carpet, so there is no point in crowds gathering.
Movie theaters are only allowed to be half-full. Organizers are putting on nearly twice as many screenings to compensate. Tickets are only available online, to avoid queues. Visitors have their temperature taken at one of the eight entries to the festival areas. Face masks are compulsory everywhere.
This year, 63 films are participating in the festival, compared with 101 in 2019.
“Numbers aren’t comparable to previous years, but it’s been a great move to organize it anyway,” said Andrea Segre, a director participating in the festival with “Venetian Molecules,” a documentary about the lagoon city’s experience under lockdown this spring.
There are fewer parties too, in keeping with a more somber tone. The opening party on the Lido beach, normally thrown by Mr. Cicutto’s cultural institution, La Biennale di Venezia, was replaced this year with a smaller-scale dinner.
The limitations didn’t dissuade Martina Scanferla, a 21-year old student from the nearby city of Padova from coming to see the stars.
“Oh my God,” Ms. Scanferla screamed after spotting French actress Adèle Exarchopoulos, one her favorites, strolling by the Excelsior Hotel on the Lido. “Look, my hand is trembling,” she said.
“It’s my fifth time and I come here to see the movies that otherwise I would never see, because they don’t screen them in most Italian towns,” said Lorenzo Deiana, a 23-year old engineer from Varese in northern Italy. He happily recalled shaking Denzel Washington’s hand five years ago.
Some professionals attending the festival are less impressed. “Compared with last year, there are fewer opportunities to meet producers to whom we can propose our services,” said Marco Fedalto, a musician from nearby Treviso, who has previously worked on movie soundtracks.
“There are fewer than half the stars and other famous people you normally see here,” said Teresa Bontà, a Venice-based photographer attending her third festival.
Mr. Cicutto’s goal is more modest. “We will be proud if this experiment shows that festivals where an audience is important can happen safely,” he said.
—R.T. Watson in Los Angeles contributed to this article.
Write to Giovanni Legorano at [email protected]
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