What Brought Italian Films `Out Of A Coma'

Subsidies, more screens, and surprise hits spark a revival

Fabio Nunziata was just another face at San Calisto Bar, a trendy hangout in a bohemian quarter of Rome. But last summer, Nunziata became a celebrity when his $230,000 feature, Il Caricatore--an autobiographical film about three directors struggling to get a first film produced--became an overnight cult success. Since then, the 32-year-old from Calabria has launched his own production company and begun a sequel.

After a 15-year slumber, "Italian cinema is finally coming out of a coma," says Oscar-winning director Bernardo Bertolucci. From an average of 350 films a year in the 1950s and 1960s, production plummeted to a low of 77 in 1995. But now, new ideas and talent are getting a break. Increased state subsidies, tax incentives for producers, more movie screens, and renewed enthusiasm for Italian cinema are fueling the revival. Italy will have produced more than 100 films by the end of this year, and even more are expected in 1998. Ticket sales are expected to rise 6% this year, to 96 million.

Why now? Bertolucci and others credit Deputy Prime Minister Walter Veltroni, who oversees the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and the Entertainment & Sport Dept. The film buff and former Communist is making cinema's revival a government priority. He has already boosted state loans for Italian-made films. After Veltroni called for a 40% cut in matinee prices last January, the attendance jumped by one-third. "We're trying to promote Italian cinema as both culture and as an industry," he says.

The government is pushing through the long planned privatization of Rome's famous but frail Cinecitta studio. "Cinema city" was founded by Benito Mussolini in 1937. More than 2,000 films, from La Dolce Vita to Cleopatra, were shot there. Although the state will still own the land and buildings, Cinecitta has invited bidders from the film and TV industries to invest in a new, $30 million company called Cinecitta Servizi. Among the bidders: Mediaset, Italy's top private media group; RAI, the public broadcaster; film producer Cecchi Gori Group; and Britain's Rank Group. The restructured studio hopes to attract more filmmakers, says Luigi Abete, president of Cinecitta and managing director of Ente Cinema, the holding company that owns it.

The industry is also benefiting from the boom in U.S.-style multiplexes. This year, 421 cinemas opened in Italy, twice as many as in 1996. Some 300 are multiplexes. With more outlets, audiences are clamoring for home-grown productions with local stars rather than Hollywood fare. This year, Italian films will grab 27% of the market for features, up from 24% in 1996. Says Veltroni: "The demand is high, and the market conditions are right for more films."

RIPPLlNG OUT. Some new directors are turning out hits. Il Ciclone, a romantic comedy by Leonardo Pieraccioni, was this year's top-grossing film in Italy. It brought in $45 million--twice the Italian receipts for U.S. blockbuster Independence Day, released in Italy at the same time. And when Italian films do well at home, they sell better overseas. Pieraccioni has just sold U.S. rights to Il Ciclone to Buena Vista International Inc. Another hit, Nirvana, a science-fiction movie by Gabriele Salvatores that uses Hollywood-style computer graphics, will come to U.S. theaters by April. Nirvana will be distributed by Miramax, which may dub the film into English.

Meanwhile, Giuseppe Tornatore, who thrilled U.S. audiences with his Oscar-winning Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, sold his newest film, The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean, for worldwide distribution even before shooting began. New Line Pictures paid $15 million.

Despite these successes, Italy's film industry still lags behind Hollywood, especially when it comes to marketing and distribution. Big U.S. studios invest at least 20% of a film's budget in promotion and marketing, whereas Italian and other European producers invest as little as 1%. Because of Americans' aversion to subtitled films, Italian-language movies are rarely distributed beyond big-city art houses.

In response, the government is pushing international co-productions. Italian films are usually financed with government aid and from the sale of TV rights. Now, tax breaks offered to both Italian and international producers should make for more money from abroad. In August, the government signed deals with Cuba, France, New Zealand, and Portugal to encourage co-productions. With initiatives like these, an Italian film may be coming soon to a theater near you.

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