Cel block rises in Eternal City

Cinecitta Studios standing strong

Cinecitta conquered “Rome.” But aside from the mega HBO/BBC toga skein now happily encamped on fiveacres of its big back lot, how is the famed facility faring in the ever-bloodier warfare between big European studios?

Shooting in Eastern European studios is, of course, cheaper. And it doesn’t help that Italy still lacks subsidies introduced elsewhere in Europe as a magnet for international productions — though regional incentives are deemed imminent.

Still, don’t underestimate the value of 70 years of experience, says Cinecitta Studios topper Lamberto Mancini.

“You can decide to go shoot in Bulgaria because building your set there costs less. But if you factor in our quality, know-how, security, flexibility, plus overall contingency factors, you might well think again,” the studio boss boasts.

Since its 1997 partial privatization, Cinecitta has steadily bolstered its standing as a hot spot for high-profile international projects such as “Gangs of New York” and “The Passion of the Christ.”

The devil also came with Morgan Creek’s discord-dogged “Exorcist: The Beginning,” for which Cinecitta bent over backward to accommodate both the initial Paul Schrader cut and the Renny Harlin-helmed reshoot.

Despite brutal competition, since being privatized Cinecitta’s turnover has doubled to $49 million in 2005, while managing to steadily turn a small profit.

That might not be much, but it’s better than some other big European studios, such as Berlin’s Babelsberg, which hasn’t turned a profit since its privatization in 1992.

Meanwhile, the one-time Hollywood on the Tiber has been expanding, buying up rival Rome-based Dino Studios, which had been operating under Franco-Tunisian entrepreneur Tarak Ben Ammar, and gaining control of Roberto Benigni’s Papigno studio in Umbria, north of the Italian capital, which has been renamed Cinecitta Umbria.

More international pics have also arrived.

Francois Girard’s romantic drama “Silk,” a Canadian-Italo-Brit co-production toplining Keira Knightley, is shooting at Dino Studios after its February start in Japan.

Cinecitta also is busy with New Line’s birth of Jesus pic “Nativity,” to be helmed by Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen”), which begins lensing in Italy in May before moving to Morocco, most likely to CLA Studios in Ouarzate, with which Cinecitta is in the process of pacting.

Back at the “Rome” ranch, which is touted as the world’s largest standing set, carpenters and painters have been sprucing up the Forum, and a dozen new set pieces have been built, including a replica of an ancient port, for the skein’s second installment, which kicked off production April 10.

Nearby on the lot, artisans have been dipping swaths of wool, cotton, and silk in vats of boiling dye to update the Roman fashions for series two.

Because of its largely British cast, the battle for “Rome” was fought not with Bulgaria, but with London’s Pinewood-Shepperton. What clinched it for Cinecitta was comparative weather-report charts execs sent to HBO honchos. But it’s not just the sunshine that keeps Hollywood coming.

“I just could not have done this anywhere else,” enthuses “Rome” costume designer April Ferry, caressing a custom-made leather bodice made by brothers Augusto and Giampaolo Grassi, whose father created the body armor for “Cleopatra.”

“They have really been able to keep up with our American work style and need for flexibility,” says “Rome” exec producer John Melfi. “It may be costing us, but ultimately we think it’s worth it.”

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