The Cowboys & Aliens film stagecoach rolled into Locarno on Saturday, with stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford on hand for the summer blockbuster’s European premiere.
Securing an appearance by the A-list cast was a big coup for the Locarno Film Festival - one of the longest running festivals in the world alongside Cannes and Venice but not a usual fixture for Hollywood actors.
The festival admitted to swissinfo.ch being “stunned” by their “lucky break” when they heard that not only director Jon Favreau, but also Ford, Craig and actress Olivia Wilde would be coming to the southern Swiss lakeside town.
On a mission to boost the festival’s profile since taking over two years ago, Locarno director Olivier Père had hustled at the American Film Market and the European headquarters of major studios for a chance to host major United States releases as well as the festival’s usual art house and world cinema fare.
The draw of Locarno, according to the industry office head Nadia Desti, was the chance to screen premieres on the Piazza Grande’s unique 26x14m high definition, open air screen, as well as the festival’s tight anti-piracy measures.
Favreau said it was “dream” to have the film on such a big screen. He told a press conference: “It seems that Europe embraces the Western more than the Americans do and appreciates how it fit into cinematic history. When they stopped making Westerns in the United States, Sergio Leone picked up the baton and marched forward and evolved it.”
Likewise the entertainment industry is looking for films that transfer across cultures, he added, and alien flicks fit that bill. “America is no longer making movies just for itself. The nice thing about an alien movie is that the bad guy is a bad guy to everybody on earth.”
Bringing Hollywood heavyweights to Locarno meant organising the festival's biggest ever press junket for the larger than usual media presence. (There were over 700 accredited press journalists in town, with many more scrambling to get in at the last minute.)
Cowboys & Aliens aired at a sold-out, 8,000-seater Piazza Grande on a rainy Saturday night. Before the film started, each of the stars addressed the crowd, thanking the audience for braving the downpour.
More Western than science fiction, the film stars Craig as the lone cowboy who leads townspeople in a fight against aliens who have come to earth to mine gold.
Director Favreau manages to successfully merge the two opposing genres and keeps the plot light, simple and fast paced, like the graphic novel on which it is based.
It’s Ford’s first Western since The Frisco Kid in 1979. To coincide with the premiere, the festival presented the 69-year-old with a lifetime achievement award for being “an actor who became a reference model for many generations”.
At a press conference ahead of the premiere, Ford told swissinfo.ch: “I’ve been very fortunate, my career started at one of the most exciting periods in film when a lot of people went to movies a lot and movies were a very powerful attraction. So I consider myself very lucky and I’m very grateful for the kind attention of the festival in granting me this prestigious award.”
Tapping into the star system
American cinema and science fiction were a running theme at the festival.
It opened on Wednesday with J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 tale of mysterious goings-on in small town Ohio. And on Friday, thousands of people sat huddled under umbrellas and plastic rain parkas for a Piazza double bill of US rom-com Friends with Benefits and British alien film, Attack the Block, where the invaders are fought off by a gang of teenagers on a London housing estate.
Industry office head Dresti told swissinfo.ch the importance of American cinema to a festival like Locarno could not be underestimated.
“American cinema makes a difference in the world. Hollywood remains ... the real business, the star system,” she said.
But the industry is now more reliant on business outside the US, Richard Mowe, critic for Box Office magazine and organiser of French and Italian film festivals in Britain, told swissinfo.ch.
“American movies now make more money outside of American than they do in America. Therefore that means that Europe and the rest of the world are incredibly important. That means that American films are no longer governed by the particular tastes of the American public necessarily but also have wider horizons and that is why I think the film companies will come to Locarno.”
Decades ago, international stars were regulars at Locarno’s Grand Hotel, where the festival was held until the 1970s. The festival then began to shift its focus to films from Europe and developing countries. In the 1990s, Marco Müller brought along American blockbusters to the Piazza such as Speed and Pulp Fiction, and with them Sandra Bullock and Quentin Tarantino.
But mostly the festival is recognised as being a strong supporter of diverse “auteur cinema” and its strong directorial presence.
Hollywood and independent cinema do not have to be mutually exclusive, Dresti argues. Locarno can be a venue for both, “a place for film buffs, for intellectuals and for daydreamers and film lovers”.
“What is really striking about the Locarno Film Festival is the range of films here,” Mowe added.
“You see films here that you don’t see at any other festivals, a lot of experimental films that don’t get a window of opportunity anywhere else. I think it’s that very exciting mix that gives Locarno its unique personality in the film arena.”
Cowboys & Aliens
Director: Jon Favreau
Produced by: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg
Based on Cowboys & Aliens graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg
Production: Universal Pictures
Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano
Budget: $162 million
World premiere: Comic-Con International, San Diego on July 23, 2011end of infobox
Locarno Film Festival
It’s the 64th Locarno Film Festival, which runs until August 13.
260 works are being shown: around 200 films and around 60 short films and including around 40 world premieres. 32 works are Swiss.
20 films are being shown on the Piazza Grande huge screen on Locarno’s main square. It starts with Super 8 by J.J Abrams and ends with Et si on vivait tous ensemble (And If We All Lived Together) by Stéphane Robelin.
20 films are in the International Competition, including 14 world premieres and three first works.
3 lifetime awards: Claudia Cardinale, Claude Goretta and Bruno Ganz; 3 special awards: Leopard of Honour to Abel Ferrara, Excellence Award to Isabelle Huppert, Best Independent Producer Award (Premio Raimondo Rezzonico) to Mike Medavoy.
It’s the second festival for Frenchman Olivier Père. Before that he was managing director of the Directors’ Fortnight, a prestigious independent section of the Cannes Film Festival.
(With input from Françoise Gehring), swissinfo.ch