Newspaper critics are increasingly being put off by how expensive the Venice Film Festival, which begins tomorrow, has become. One critic from Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf says that he can spend two weeks covering Toronto for the same cost of one week in Venice. This at a time when newspapers are reducing staff and slashing travel budgets. Increasingly, critics are covering either the first few days or the closing few days. The London Guardian is sending just two critics and a reporter to the festival. And those two critics who are leap-frogging each other.

Baz Bamigboye, show-business reporter for the Daily Mail, tells me: “My sense is that it’s no longer special. There are fewer important films and the place has become another junket nightmare.” Bamigboye isn’t going to Venice this year. Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian agrees: “Venice is declining in importance.”

A deeper problem though is Hollywood stars staying away. It’s very expensive to get Hollywood A-listers to come out to Italy. And when they are there, they want to stay at one of the city’s big luxury hotels such as the Gritti Palace or the Danieli – both of which are some distance from the Lido, where the fest takes place. Even transporting Hollywood stars from their suites to the event becomes expensive. Distributors cannot justify dropping so much money this early in the awards season. Toronto is a great deal cheaper. That is why Fox has decided to give Never Let Me Go its world premiere in Toronto rather than Venice, I’m told. Actors coming out to Venice this year include Jessica Alba (Machete), Helen Mirren (The Tempest), Paul Giamatti (Barney’s Version), Stephen Dorff (Somewhere) and Casey Affleck (I’m Still Here).

Absence of star power on the red carpet, combined with how costly Venice is, has become a headache for festival organisers. Marco Mueller, director of the Venice Film Festival, was unavailable for comment.

The festival has not been entirely unresponsive to the critics’ plight though, despite fest organisers responding with an Italianate shrug when PRs warn them about the problem. The festival pays the entire accommodation costs of some critics it wants there. And there’s only so much the festival can do. Hotels and restaurants want to try and make as much money as they can throughout the 11-day festival.

Venice has seen off a threat from the rival Rome Film Festival, which was throwing money at Hollywood. Now that money tap has been turned off, Venice has re-established its local dominance. The bigger problem is that Venice and Berlin are both are in the shadow of Cannes. If a newspaper can only cover one festival each year, it’s probably going to be Cannes. Guardian critic Xan Brooks tells me: “The likes of Venice, Toronto, Sundance, Berlin and SXSW are in a dead heat for second place. Or, put it another way: a five-way tie for last.” One flack adds: “Love it or hate it, you have to go to Cannes. Combined with fewer Hollywood A-listers doing press, it’s becoming a real problem for Venice.”

So, which film do critics think will win this year’s prestigious Golden Lion? David Gritten of the London Daily Telegraph sticks his neck out and says the opening night film, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, has a good chance of winning. Every critic I have spoken to is also keen to see Robert Rodriquez’s Machete, Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere and Catherine Breillat’s latest psychosexual fairy-tale Sleeping Beauty. Brooks says he also wants to see Vincent Gallo’s Promises Written In Water, “just to find out if it’s as self-indulgent and hilariously solipsistic as The Brown Bunny”. He adds that predicting which film is going to win a festival prize is like pinning a tail on a donkey blindfold. “That’s the thing about film festivals,” adds his colleague Peter Bradshaw. “You sometimes find a diamond in the rough.”

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