The 69th Venice Film Festival gets underway today as Alberto Barbera debuts his first selection effort since returning to run the show. Venice’s artistic director from 1998 to 2002, he stepped back in when Marco Muller was ousted late last year.

Venice’s position as the first international fall festival means it can have an impact on awards season. Last year, it thrust Michael Fassbender into the spotlight with the best actor Volpi Cup for Shame. (Fox Searchlight’s Shame pick-up was confirmed in Toronto, though the deal was all but signed in Venice.) Other recent films and talent to see their stock rise from a Venice bow include Brokeback Mountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Helen Mirren (The Queen) and Colin Firth (A Single Man). Then again, two years ago, Quentin Tarantino’s jury gave his ex-girlfriend Sofia Coppola the Golden Lion for Somewhere, a film that was a non-factor in that year’s Oscar race. Michael Mann is jury president this year.

The MasterThe highest-profile pic on the premieres bill here this year is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, regarded as a thinly veiled reference to Scientology with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Joaquin Phoenix which The Weinstein Company will release Sept. 14 in the U.S.

Films on deck without a domestic deal include Mira Nair’s opening night film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist with Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland and Liev Schreiber, handled in North America by Hal Sadoff for the Doha Film Institute and Bart Walker of Cinetic; Terrence Malick’s love story To The Wonder with Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams which FilmNation is handling; and Brian De Palma’s Euro-produced Passion also with McAdams and Noomi Rapace.

Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep (out of competition) and Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price with Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron were preemptively picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, mirroring the kind of pre-fest acquisitiveness the company demonstrated before Cannes. SPC also has Susanne Bier’s out of competition pic Love Is All You Need, which it bought in May. SPC execs are not expected on the Lido this week, but I’m assured they’re keeping an eye on the proceedings. Another picture without US distribution that I hear good things about is Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers with James Franco and Selena Gomez.

Foreign films to keep an eye on include Carlos director Olivier Assayas’ 70s set Something In The Air; Italian vet Marco Bellocchio’s reflective Bella Addormentata; Xavier Giannoli’s overnight celebrity treatise, Superstar; redemption tale Pieta from South Korea’s Kim Ki-Duk and Takeshi Kitano’s gangland thriller Outrage Beyond.

Other highlights of the fest will include Jonathan Demme’s documentary Enzo Avitabile Music Life; the premiere screening of Spike Lee’s Michael Jackson doc Bad 25, which ABC just acquired for broadcast at Thanksgiving and a remastered showing of Michael Cimino’s infamous Heaven’s Gate. The festival runs to Sept 8.

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