Italy’s Bonivento Finds Big Deal In Tinseltown

Every Italo producer dreams of going to Hollywood with a script in his briefcase and returning home with a worldwide distribution deal with a U.S. major.

Few succeed, but Numero Uno topper Claudio Bonivento did just that with “The Inner Circle,” a $15 million production directed by Andrei Konchalovsky starring Tom Hulce, Lolita Davidovitch and Bob Hoskins that will be released by Columbia Pictures in December.

With few exceptions, most Italians who try their luck in Hollywood have accumulated more debts than deals. Bonivento is aware of the pitfalls and takes a pragmatic, one-step-at-a-time attitude.

“I’m not trying to invade Hollywood, or fight Hollywood. No one can. The Italian industry needs to work with Americans. And the only way we can do that is to make good films and let the product speak for itself,” said Bonivento.

Lensed on location in Moscow, including a few scenes shot inside the Kremlin, “The Inner Circle” is about how Joseph Stalin’s private film projectionist (played by Hulce) gets drawn into the dictator’s inner sanctum of power and privilege. Financing is all Italian, produced by Claudio Bonivento Productions, with a minimum guarantee from Columbia. Mosfilm contributed services on location.

Bonivento started out as a record producer before founding Numero Uno in 1982 and producing a string of quickie comedies and tv movies for Silvio Berlusconi.

After producing some 10 films for Berlusconi, Bonivento said he realized that audiences were responding less and less to formula comedies, and he decided to try something different – a type of film that he defined as “something that reflects and analyzes what’s going on in the world around us. I’d call it ‘realistic’ rather than neo-realist.”

In the past two years Bonivento’s small indie production banner has turned out three films by promising young directors – Marco Risi’s “Forever Mary” and sequel “Boys On The Outside,” and “Ricky Tognazzi’s “Ultra” – which have helped define a new breed of Italian cinema that melds fast-paced, American-style dramatic narrative with Italian realism and social concern.

No mean feat

What’s more, all three films have recouped their costs at the boxoffice – no mean feat in a country where most Italian films are yanked from the theaters after a week to make room for the next American blockbuster.

“Boys On The Outside” grossed $8.3 million in Italy, according to Bonivento. He expects “Ultra,” with a gross of $2.5 million after six weeks in release, to reach about $5 million, the amount grossed by “Forever Mary.” Each one cost about $2.5 million to produce. Pubcaster RAI-2 purchased broadcast rights and put up a small share of the budget for “Boys On The Outside” and “Ultra.”

While not created for international audiences of the type that might appreciate “The Inner Circle,” the three pics have proved that subtitled original-language Italian films with unknown actors can be successfully exported. Marco Risi’s “Forever Mary,” about a group of young inmates in a Palermo juvenile prison, opened in 10 U.S. cities on April 19, released by small indie distrib Cinevista.

After winning the director’s Silver Bear at the Berlin Fest, “Ultra,” Tognazzi’s portrayal of violent soccer fans, was sold to England, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium and Greece.

Bonivento, along with many other producers here, is encouraged by the promising new crop of directors and actors that is putting Italy back on the map of international cinema. How does he explain their success? “Italian films must have strong cultural roots to be attractive to foreign audiences,” Bonivento said. “The new directors – like Risi, Tognazzi, Giuseppe Tornatore – were raised on American cinema as well as the Italian classics. They’ve found a synthesis of the two types of cinema that audiences can relate to.”

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