Italo producer combines commercial, local fare

ROME — Italy’s state film entity Istituto Luce is attempting to break away from its olden days of sloppy subsidizing with a new game plan.

It will co-produce international projects starring internationally known actors, and concurrently shepherd low-budget debut works by local unknown helmers.

Since taking the reins in January 2003, Luce managing director Luciano Sovena — a former entertainment lawyer — has been treading this dual track, which now sees the customarily low-profile production/distribution outfit strutting on the Lido as the Italo partner of Al Pacino starrer “The Merchant of Venice,” shortly after “Private,” its Palestinian-Isreali conflict drama shot in DV by first-timer Saverio Costanzo, scooped the Golden Pard in Locarno.

Luce is also an Italian backer of “Memories of Hadrian,” the $30 million English-language adaptation of Maguerite Yourcenar’s book, to be directed next year by John Boorman, with Antonio Banderas in talks to play the Roman emperor, and of “Modigliani,” a recently wrapped biopic of the Italo artist and Picasso rival, starring Andy Garcia and helmed by Mick Davis (“The Match”).

“I’d really like to see more synergy between European capital and U.S. talent and directors,” Sovena says. “It can work well because they get to make movies that would not get off the ground within the U.S. studio system. In exchange, we pay them less money up front, but they receive more points on the film’s U.S. side.”

Luce has come on as co-producer of Abel Ferrara’s strip-joint screwball comedy “Go Go Tales,” which Robert Carlyle and Bob Hoskins are now in talks to star in, alongside supermodels Naomi Campbell and Eva Herzigova. Shooting on “Tales” is expected to start early next year at Cinecitta. Sovena says he hopes Ferrara — who gained an arthouse following in Italy with “Bad Lieutenant” — will make a comeback to his “pre-‘New Rose Hotel’ glory days.”

Though these English-language projects involve spending more per title, Sovena claims they are sound investments because he can recoup costs entirely from ancillary, so that theatrical intake can become gravy. Luce in the past mostly just bought product for theatrical distribution — rather than boarding a pic as a co-producer — under deals that gave it limited rights.

Luce continues to also acquire some completed product via recently hired acquisitions exec Claudia Bedogno. Recent pickups include “Lost Embrace” and “Maria Full of Grace.”

According to Sovena, Luce’s international activity is actually just a means for ensuring it can pursue its real mission: giving young Italo directors a chance to shoot their first features.

Besides “Private,” this guiding principle has also spawned Paolo Franchi’s voyeur pic “The Spectator,” which scored critical kudos at the Tribeca Film fest, and has been a niche commercial success at home. Luce has two other freshmen projects in the works, a drug drama titled “Ultima Fermata” (Last Stop), and a noir about a crime gang known as La Banda della Magliana.

Under Sovena’s tenure Luce’s annual budget has been x12 million ($14.4 million), with which he has managed to keep the one-time chronic money-looser out of the red. But tough times may lie ahead with a proposed 60 % cut in film funds now looming in the Italian parliament.

“If the proposal passes, we might as well close down,” he laments. “I doubt that it will, but some serious cutbacks are surely coming up.”

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