Depp and Netflix are the talk of Venice film fest

Johnny Depp tops the cast of stars headed to Venice this week for what is shaping up as something of a watershed edition of the world's oldest film festival.

Depp and Netflix are the talk of Venice film fest
Johnny Depp on the red carpet in Venice in 2007. Photo: Christophe Simon / AFP

Amid the usual mix of big-budget Hollywood productions and more cerebral offerings from international auteurs, this year's event breaks new ground with the first major feature film to be produced in-house by Netflix among 21 works competing for the festival's top prize, the Golden Lion.

Four years after it started acquiring its own original television content with Kevin Spacey's acclaimed “House of Cards”, the US streaming giant is hoping for a similar publicity, credibility and subscriber-generating hit with “Beasts of No Nation”, a child soldier drama featuring Britain's Idris Elba as a warlord called 'Commandant' and an otherwise largely unknown cast.

The Cary Fukunaga-directed film, based on a novel by Nigerian writer Uzodinma Iweala, will be released to cinemas on the same day in October as it is made available for Netflix's 65 million subscribers around the world to stream into their homes.

That has not gone down well with major cinema chains in the United States and elsewhere who have point blank refused to distribute the film, arguing that to do so without any period where it is only available in their theatres would be suicidal.

Netflix has, however, been able to find one chain which will ensure “Beasts…” opens in 19 US cities on the same day as its digital release — and that is enough to qualify the film as a bona fide made-for-cinema piece of work eligible to be nominated for an Oscar.

Against a backdrop of fragmenting business models, most industry figures, Venice director Alberto Barbera among them, see the barriers between home and cinema viewing being eroded. Consumers are asserting their right to choose when and how they watch their films, while the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime are beginning to put significant resources into film-making.

“They are going to be important players in production and distribution. We simply can't ignore them,” Barbera said at the festival's launch in July.

'Real life sociopath'

Pirates of the Caribbean star Depp will be treading the red carpet to promote his performance as Irish-American mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger in Scott Cooper's “Black Mass”, one of two blockbuster productions being shown for the first time during the September 2-12 festival.

The other is “Everest”, a 3D thriller based on the 1996 disaster on the Himalayan mountain, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Kiera Knightley and will open the festival on Wednesday.

On a roll after the opening slot provided the global launchpad for “Gravity” two years ago and then “Birdman” in 2014, festival director Barbera will be hoping the Baltasar Kormakur-directed curtain-raiser for this year's season has a similar impact.

Despite their big names and huge budgets, “Everest” and “Black Mass” appear to have been matched in terms of pre-festival buzz by “The Danish Girl”.

The latest work by “The King's Speech” director Tom Hooper features Eddie Redmayne in the role of a Danish-born artist who was one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery.

The tale of how Einar Wegener became Lili Elbe in 1930s Germany is already being tipped as a potential source of another Oscar for Britain's Redmayne, a best actor winner for his portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”.

Depp's portrayal of the middle-aged, largely bald Bulger sees him return to the territory of 1997's “Donnie Brasco”, in which he played an FBI agent who infiltrates an Italian American crime family.

Bulger also helped the FBI break up Italian organised crime, but used the protection he acquired as a result to build his own powerful criminal empire in Boston.

For Depp, now 52, the role marks a return to more conventional roles after several years in which he specialized in playing larger-than-life, fantasy figures, and his backers say his legions of fans will not be disappointed.

“He is playing a real life sociopath and he nailed it,” producer Brian Oliver told The Hollywood Reporter.

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Italy to pay €57m compensation over Venice cruise ship ban

The Italian government announced on Friday it would pay 57.5 million euros in compensation to cruise companies affected by the decision to ban large ships from Venice's fragile lagoon.

A cruise ship in St Mark's Basin, Venice.
The decision to limit cruise ship access to the Venice lagoon has come at a cost. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

The new rules, which took effect in August, followed years of warnings that the giant floating hotels risked causing irreparable damage to the lagoon city, a UNESCO world heritage site.

READ ALSO: Venice bans large cruise ships from centre after Unesco threat of ‘endangered’ status

Some 30 million euros has been allocated for 2021 for shipping companies who incurred costs in “rescheduling routes and refunding passengers who cancelled trips”, the infrastructure ministry said in a statement.

A further 27.5 million euros – five million this year and the rest in 2022 – was allocated for the terminal operator and related companies, it said.

The decision to ban large cruise ships from the centre of Venice in July came just days before a meeting of the UN’s cultural organisation Unesco, which had proposed adding Venice to a list of endangered heritage sites over inaction on cruise ships.

READ ALSO: Is Venice really banning cruise ships from its lagoon?

Under the government’s plan, cruise ships will not be banned from Venice altogether but the biggest vessels will no longer be able to pass through St Mark’s Basin, St Mark’s Canal or the Giudecca Canal. Instead, they’ll be diverted to the industrial port at Marghera.

But critics of the plan point out that Marghera – which is on the mainland, as opposed to the passenger terminal located in the islands – is still within the Venice lagoon.

Some aspects of the plan remain unclear, as infrastructure at Marghera is still being built. Meanwhile, smaller cruise liners are still allowed through St Mark’s and the Giudecca canals.

Cruise ships provide a huge economic boost to Venice, but activists and residents say the ships contribute to problems caused by ‘overtourism’ and cause large waves that undermine the city’s foundations and harm the fragile ecosystem of its lagoon.