Taormina Film Festival Chief Barrett Wissman on Rebooting the Italian Event With ‘Indiana Jones,’ Bella Thorne, Teyana Taylor, and an Indie Vibe

The Taormina Film Festival, one of Italy’s oldest movie celebrations, has undergone many makeovers through the years.

Held since the mid-1950s in the Sicilian resort that recently got a promotional boost as the location of “The White Lotus” Season Two, this storied summer fest boasts an 8,000-seat open-air ancient Greek amphitheater in the shadow of Sicily’s active Mt. Etna volcano.

In 2000, Tom Cruise stood on stage, greeted by hundreds of lit candles and a standing ovation to celebrate his 38th birthday while he was promoting “Mission: Impossible 2.” Ups and downs followed, as several chiefs took the Taormina reins over the the ensuing decades, until more recently the event fell off the international radar as it became mired in local squabbles and power play.

Enter Barrett Wissman, a Texan who for the past 20 years has been the chairman of IMG Artists, which reps classical musicians, dancers and performing artists, and is active in coordinating tours and producing festivals. Wissman – who has been based in Italy for years, where he’s been active in the local music milieu – is Taormina’s new chief executive and co-artistic director.

For Taormina’s upcoming 69th edition – which will run June 24-July 1 – Wissman has secured the Italian premiere of “Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny” with the main cast, including Harrison Ford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, in tow, and Cannes Film Festival opener “Jeanne du Barry,” for which director and star Maiwenn is set to make the trek.

There will also be the European premiere of A.V. Rockwell’s Sundance prize-winner “A Thousand and One” starring Teyana Taylor, who is expected; the Italian premiere of Lisa Cortes’ “Little Richard: I Am Everything” doc about the rock n’ roll icon; and the launch of Italian comedy “The Worst Days” by popular multi-hyphenate Edoardo Leo.

Other highlights include retros dedicated to John Landis, who selected the titles himself, and to the long-running friendship and collaboration between actor Willem Dafoe and director Abel Ferrara, both of whom have close ties to Italy.

Bella Thorne has been recruited to guest curate one of Taormina’s gala evenings with a special program of short films, including her own directorial debut, “Paint Her Red.” She will be inviting artists, celebrities, influencers and other talent with their works.

Wissman, in his first interview with the international press, spoke to Variety about his efforts to put Taormina back on the map.

What drew you to the challenge of rebooting Taormina?

Well, it’s quite a challenge because they called me three months before the start of the festival, and we probably only closed my contract two months ago. So, yes, it’s a big challenge, and it’s a big risk. But what made me interested was the combination of the pedigree, the place, and my knowing a little bit about doing events in Italy and creating a focal point as a platform for talent. I thought, “Well, what could be a better place and a better setting with the pedigree and the background that it has?” That combination of factors really makes for two ingredients out of several necessary to make a great event. So, I thought, “This could be a great event in the future, if we’re allowed to have a few years to manage it and take it to that point, given my experience.”

What’s your philosophy and how is it reflected in the lineup?

In terms of the elements that we have, when you look at a festival like this, one has to be very sensitive to being a foreign artistic director in a country like Italy, where this doesn’t happen often. So, the first thing one needs to think about is you can’t just have foreign films, and you can’t just have Italian films because this place is very international. It attracts people from everywhere, so you have to have a balance of content.

What are some elements of this year’s lineup that you are particularly proud of?

We have everything from retrospectives to Italian premieres, European premieres, and world premieres. And we were obviously successful in attracting the Disney feature, “Indiana Jones,” which was difficult to do, because it’s a big commercial investment for them. Convincing them to take that on and to come back to Taormina after they used to do a lot here, and to take the risk to come back with such an important film for them was no small feat. I mean, it would’ve been very easy for them to do just a major premiere in Rome or Milan. But I sat down with Daniel Frigo, Disney’s Country Manager for Italy, and after our discussion, he was willing to give us the chance and help bring our proposal di Disney. Frigo was around back in the glory days of the festival. We obviously have a French film coming, “Jeanne du Barry,” and Italy is the second most important market for French-speaking films. We have various other films and exciting things that we’re doing, including the three Italian titles premiering and “A Thousand and One” with Teyana Taylor. So, I think in a two-month period, we’ve been able to put together a very attractive mix.

Are the Nastri d’Argento (Silver Ribbons) prizes awarded by the Italian film journalists back?

Another element is that we’ve started bringing back Taormina’s roots and historically they used to always have the Nastri d’Argento Awards in this town. I’ve worked with Laura Delli Colli (who heads Italian film journalists union SNGCI) to put a foot in the door towards bringing them back to Taormina. We’re going to do this celebration with the Nastri on the last night by having a special event around “La Stranezza” (“Strangeness”) [Roberto Andò’s prizewinning hit film toplining Toni Servillo (“The Great Beauty”) as the Nobel-prize-winning playwright Luigi Pirandello] with Toni Servillo coming. That’s another element that I’m proud of because it’s very important for the Italian market and very important on a national level to bring those back to Taormina.

Is this the preamble to having the full Nastri ceremony in Taormina next year?

That’s my desire. Yes.

This year’s edition is somewhat embryonic, but how do you see Taormina shaping up?

My approach – whether it’s in the fine arts or music or theatre or film – has always been on the talent and developing relationships with talent over time. Not necessarily developing a relationship programmatically with a studio, or a certain producer, but with the talent itself and making it something where they can call me and say, “Barrett, I really want to do something this year.”

Back in the days when I ran this arts festival in Cortona, it became well known and one of the reasons is I did a lot of projects with actors. Anthony Hopkins, for example, would call me and say, “Barrett, I’m doing some work now as a musician or a composer. I’d like to feature some things that I’m doing. Can you help me?” I would say yes because it’s Anthony Hopkins and we developed a relationship.

So, I’ve done some work with Bella. She said, “I really want to show this first short that I have done as a director, and will you help me do that?” I said, “Yes,” and then the discussion developed into her helping to curate that evening because she has so many relationships with young talent.

Taormina historically has been an Italian launching pad for summer releases. How important is this aspect going to be going forward?

I don’t want this festival long term to be only about big commercial summer films. I want that to be kind of an exclamation point that can be what turbocharges it. I think that that’s an element of Taormina because it’s such a cinematic place. I mean, it’s so beautiful in that theatre and it’s great for the studios to be able to release big films there. So that will always be part of it. Let’s call it 20% or 25% of the event. But aside from that, though, back to what I said, I want to to be the friend of talent and I want to take risks with independent films. Films that are not ostensibly always going to appeal to the huge general public, but might be made by really well-known filmmakers, or involving well-known actors and actresses but something that they’re doing on the cutting edge.

I really view this as something that can focus on independent efforts, align with talent so that they can come to me and work on things over time. Also, we obviously didn’t have time this year to put together a competition because who can put together a competition in two months? But in the future, we might have competitions, though I want them to be very focused. 

(Pictured below: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at Taormina in 1967, and Tom Cruise at Taormina in 2000.)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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