Princess Diana film debuts at Venice as film industry aims for return to normality

Spencer, the much anticipated film about Diana, Princess of Wales, starring Kristen Stewart, is due to receive its world premiere on Friday at the Venice film festival – one of a string of high-profile debuts that the film industry is hoping will herald a return to some sort of normality after 18 months of pandemic.

Along with the near-simultaneous Toronto film festival, Venice has traditionally marked the end of the summer blockbuster film season and the arrival of films aiming for critical praise and subsequent awards recognition. Spencer is due to be joined at Venice by Dune, the long-gestating adaptation of Frank Herbert’s mammoth sci-fi novel directed by Denis Villeneuve; Ridley Scott’s medieval drama The Last Duel, starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver and Jodie Comer; horror-thriller Last Night in Soho, directed by Edgar Wright; and Parallel Mothers, the latest from Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar.

While Venice has a strong record of picking up films that have gone on to achieve major awards-season impact – recent winners of the festival’s Golden Lion include Nomadland, Joker, Roma and The Shape of Water – the 2021 edition is contending with the planned resumption of the industry release pipeline after months of delay and reconfiguration, which has seen the postponement of dozens of films and the diversion of key titles on to streaming platforms.

Delphine Lievens, senior box office analyst for film industry data agency Gower Street Analytics, says: “It feels like what we’re looking at now is more of a ‘new normal’. Cinema attendance so far in 2021 has been at approximately 50% of where it was at the same time in 2021, so there is some way to go. However, the bigger titles have seen box office hitting 70-80% of what they had in pre-pandemic times – so I don’t think cinema is in any way dead, but the way audiences consume content is changing and the studios know that.”

Since the release of its trailer on Thursday, Spencer has quickly emerged as a key contender this autumn, both in box office terms and for awards consideration. Stewart is already being talked up as a contender for the best actress Oscar, while the film’s US distributor Neon is releasing the film in a similar mid-season slot to its successful 2019 Oscar-winner Parasite – despite the disastrous performance of 2013’s Diana, the last high-profile film about the princess. The distributors’ efforts have been enhanced by Stewart’s apparent enthusiasm for the role, with the actor telling InStyle magazine: “I haven’t been this excited about playing a part, by the way, in so long.” Stewart added: “It’s one of the saddest stories to exist ever, and I don’t want to just play Diana – I want to know her implicitly.”

Spencer’s director, Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín, will compete for the Golden Lion against a string of film-making heavyweights: aside from Almodóvar, the Venice competition also features entries from The Great Beauty’s Paolo Sorrentino (The Hand of God), veteran American writer-director Paul Schrader (The Card Counter), and New Zealand director Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog). Also up for the award are a newer generation of directors, including Iranian-American film-maker Ana Lily Amirpour with fantasy thriller Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon and actor Maggie Gyllenhaal with an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter.

Whoever wins the Golden Lion, they will emerge into a film release landscape still vastly changed from pre-pandemic times. With titles such as Cinderella, Coming 2 America and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm released directly on to streaming platforms, and others including Black Widow, Nomadland, and Midnight Sky opting for a “hybrid” release, the film industry is still experimenting with how to get the best out of a situation that is still in considerable flux. Lievens says: “The accelerated development of streaming platforms definitely has made some changes to cinema-going, although these were changes that were always going to happen eventually. It’s also pushing the outdated models in the film industry to develop at a rapid rate and we should see this continue into the future.”

“The number of prestige titles competing for attention during the autumn will be augmented by films receiving world premieres at Toronto, which gets under way as Venice winds down,” says Lievens. These include Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical drama Belfast, coming of age musical Dear Evan Hansen, Tammy Faye Messner biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and Benediction, Terence Davies’ study of the poet Siegfried Sassoon. The backlog of films queueing to enter film festivals and cinemas has led to suggestions that a bonanza of product is on the way, with talk of a new “golden age” as a result.

Lievens adopts a more cautious tone as far as box-office prospects are concerned: “There are too many factors to say for certain if this will happen. The first and most obvious one is just the level of content. Audiences only have so much time and money, and if there’s too many films they run the risk of cannibalising each other at the box office. We also don’t know what the next developments in the Covid pandemic might be, and there’s no certainty that release dates won’t start to shift again.”

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