High Hopes for a Wooden Performance

Italy is counting on Pinocchio to restore its cinema luster

Will Americans line up for a movie starring a balding, middle-aged Italian in short pants and a funny hat? Miramax Film Corp. and McDonald's Corp. sure hope so. The Hollywood studio and the fast-food giant are banking on the success of Pinocchio, a live-action take on the classic Italian fairy tale featuring Tuscan funnyman Roberto Benigni. The flick is a box-office smash in Italy, having taken in a record $24 million since it opened on Oct. 11. "It's making history," says Andrea Lazzarin, marketing director at Medusa Film, the film's Italian distributor.

But will Pinocchio make it big on the other side of the Atlantic? With super-saturated color and a two-year production schedule, Benigni's opus--he directed it, too--ate through a $45 million budget, making it the most expensive Italian film ever. But that's peanuts compared with the $100 million Warner Bros. Inc. has pumped into Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, or the similar amount Disney has shelled out for its animated Treasure Planet, both scheduled for release in the weeks before Pinocchio's Christmas Day debut.

So it's Benigni vs. the Big Boys. Miramax, in a "leap of faith," according to Chief Operating Officer Rick Sands, paid $25 million for the U.S. rights to Pinocchio without even taking a peek at the script. And it will not settle for just an art-house hit, à la Il Postino. The studio has arranged for the movie to be shown on 2,000 screens and has lined up multimillion-dollar marketing deals with toy mecca FAO Schwarz and McDonald's, complete with toy giveaways for kids that order Happy Meals. "We're supporting it like it's a very commercial movie," says Sands.

No one has more riding on this film than Benigni, though. His production company Melampo bankrolled the filming. His reputation as an actor and director is at stake, too. Fans of the 50-year-old Italian comedian are betting that he will strike Oscar gold again--his Life is Beautiful took home three trophies in 1999 and grossed $229 million at the box office.

If Pinocchio travels well, it could also revitalize Italian cinema, which has been in decline since the 1960s, when dapper Marcello Mastroianni and sultry Monica Vitti ruled the screen. Nowadays, Italian movies must compete against splashier, more expensive Hollywood fare even at home: Of the 10 top-grossing movies in Italy each year, usually only one is Italian. To draw Italians into the theater, Melampo orchestrated a marketing blitz worthy of one of the big American studios. Italian publisher Grupo Giunti is churning out 14 different titles spun around the Carlo Collodi character. And Medusa, the distribution company owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has poured $2 million into an ad campaign. That's more than the entire budget of most Italian films. "It's the first real Italian blockbuster," says Giovan Profita, Director General for Cinema at the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage Activities.

Benigni and his American partners also have taken pains to reach out to U.S. audiences. They have recruited American actors including Cheech Marin and Queen Latifah to lend their voices for the U.S. dubbing. But there's still a danger that Pinocchio could get lost in the translation. Americans reared on the 1940 Walt Disney animated classic may balk at Benigni's version, which hews much closer to the the original plot and is darker than Disney's adaptation.

Don't talk to the Italians about risk, though. They're sure they can out-tinsel Tinseltown. "Pinocchio was born and managed with a strategy for the global market," says Profita. The movie could become the template for a new wave of Italian films. Profita's office, which doles out $100 million a year in loans, is favoring films with wider appeal, especially those capable of clearing language and cultural hurdles--and winning the support of deep-pocketed distributors like Miramax. "We don't want a movie about some farmer in the south of Italy," sniffs Sands. But puppets with noses that grow--we're talking blockbuster.

By Christina W. Passariello in Paris

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