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Venice film fest, opening this week, is still a cinema lifeline

By Michael Roddy and Isla Binnie

LONDON/ROME (Reuters) - Saverio Costanzo, the Italian director of the New York City-set low-budget drama "Hungry Hearts" that will compete for the top prize at the Venice Film Festival opening this week, sees the exposure his film will get as a godsend.

"For a movie like this a festival is crucial," Costanzo, who said he made the movie for under 1 million euros (1.32 million US dollar), told Reuters.

"We need the festival to make a buzz so people know about the film and Venice is a festival that is full of passion."

That is a welcome endorsement for the Venice Film Festival's 71st edition, which opens on Wednesday with the much-anticipated world premiere of "Birdman" by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and starring Michael Keaton as a former superhero trying to make a comeback.

Although it is the world's oldest film festival and perhaps its most glamorous, with stars chauffeured to the red carpet on Lido Island by motorboat water taxis instead of limousines, it struggles, a bit like the city, to keep its head above water.

"For the longest time it lived off its reputation for being one of the oldest, one of the most prestigious, one of the most gorgeous places in Europe but in the last few years it's lost a bit of its purpose because the independent and arthouse film industry has been hard hit," said Scott Roxborough, German bureau chief for The Hollywood Reporter trade publication.

The festival's director, Alberto Barbera, who was brought back in 2012 after an eight-year hiatus, has introduced a host of innovations to keep Venice relevant at a time when the Tribeca Festival in New York in April steals some of its artistic thunder and the Toronto Film Festival that begins next week has become a global cinematic mega mall.

Toronto shows hundreds of films while Venice screens 55, 20 of those competing for the top Golden Lion award.

On the artistic front, the "Venice Days" forum, run independently but parallel to the main lineup, this year has 14 films competing for the first time for a 20,000-euro prize.

"We are not looking for middle-of-the-road cinema. We look for filmmakers that have made a film that breaks away from their traditional style," its director, Giorgio Gosetti, told Reuters.

Gosetti says Venice Days lets directors meet, spend time and dine together at its special "villa" - which he sees, without naming it, as a world away from the likes of Toronto.

"Film festivals today are factories or supermarkets, where everyone goes to buy the products, speaks to nobody and then goes to the checkout and pays," he said.

FILM MARKET ESSENTIAL

But festivals increasingly need a "checkout counter" where the movers and shakers in the cinema world can make deals, and Barbera gets much credit for having launched a long overdue Venice Film Market, now in its third year.

The Venice Film Market last year recorded a 25 percent increase in the number of distributors, producers and sales agents attending as well as films presented over its first year, the festival says on its website.

The aim clearly is to boost Venice's profile as a place to do business, but John Hopewell, a reporter for trade publication Variety, said the festival still has a long way to go.

"The number of industry participants at Venice according to the festival itself is 1,400 and that's not much more than Locarno which is around 1,070 or San Sebastian which is about 1,000," Hopewell said, naming two other big European festivals.

"You would expect the industry presence in Venice to be significantly higher but I think the Venice Film Market is a step in the right direction."

Besides, Hopewell said, there's no better place than Venice for a producer or film company to impress an actor or actress in a film that's been made, or one for which they've yet to sign.

"Everyone can have a limo but not so many Hollywood actors have been in a water taxi to arrive to walk up the staircase and suddenly they're on an idyllic island, very relaxed, signing autographs and you've got Venice in the background," he said.

"That's probably as glamorous if not more glamorous than Cannes and certainly more glamorous than Toronto, Berlin or Sundance."

(Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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