New regime puts an end to fly-by-night producers

ROME — A nearly two-year-long film subsidy freeze crippling Italy’s film industry ended last week when the government allocated some 70 million euros ($92.8 million) in production funds to be dished out under a new film law that makes obtaining such coin a whole new ballgame.

But while the news may sound good, nobody in Rome was cheering. Not yet, at least.

Under Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative government, the country’s culture ministry has made it its mantra to dismantle a system of subsidies that over the previous decade had spawned hundreds of flops and fattened the pockets of many fly-by-night producers.

Local trade publication Box Office estimates that between 1994 and 2003, some $400 million was spent on 232 movies which totalled a mere $80 million at the box office. On paper, the new rules — approved last year — should weed out the wheeler-dealers.

Known as a “reference system,” the new regime forces producers to come up with at least half a project’s budget from private investors and looks at producers and directors’ track records — both in terms of commercial success and critical acclaim — in determining if they are eligible for funding.

Projects from first-time helmers are selected based on the script and the helmer’s educational and professional background.

“No more blank checks,” the culture ministry’s film department topper Gaetano Blandini vowed to Variety last week as he announced that the funding faucet was being turned back on.

“Italy now has a good film law in place,” the film czar enthuses, adding that the new rules are not cast in stone, but “can be modified if necessary.” At the same time Blandini complained that so far only 21 projects by established helmers, and 44 projects by first-timers, have been submitted.

“They’re scared. They know it’s not cozy anymore,” he claims. But the Italo industryites’ fears stem largely from other reasons. One problem is the country’ s film community has been stung by the current government. While many favor the new film law, producers have been hit hard by the draconian funding cuts — no coin was allocated last year — made just as the new rules should have been implemented.

“Last year we distributed seven domestic titles. This year we’ve just got one,” says Luigi Musini, head of indie shingle Mikado. “You are going to see a massive production dearth in 2005.”

Another big bone of contention is that dozens of projects that had been deemed eligible for funding — and were awaiting coin under the old regime — have now simply been scrapped by the new law, and will have to be resubmitted. Several local industry orgs are engaged in bitter legal battle with the ministry.

Leading the pack is Gruppo 16/12, which represents 20 projects by first-time helmers. These had been deemed eligible for financing of 90% of their budgets on December 16, 2003, pending a final technicality, and have now been told all they can do is start from scratch under the new rules.

“We are the sacrificial victims of the new law,” says 16/12’s Fabio Massimo Lozzi. “It’s clear that the ministry is being totally brutal and indifferent.”

“The spirit of the new law may be good, but the government’s attitude is arrogant and untrustworthy,” says Andrea Occhipinti, topper of indie Lucky Red. Occhipinti recently chaired a Rome confab that compared Italian subsidies with other European government efforts to sustain national film industries. “Let’s see what happens. All I know is we still have a long way to go.”

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