Medusa’s local movie heroes

Italian titles put distributor on top

ROME — In Italy, where Hollywood currently commands a solid 60% share of the box office, Silvio Berlusconi’s Medusa Film is the top distributor for 2008. Despite Italy’s love of American films, Medusa has a strong slate of local pics, with movies due from heavy hitters including Giuseppe Tornatore, Gabriele Muccino and Michele Placido.

Though it scored recently with Yank specialty titles “Burn After Reading” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” domestic pics account for nearly 70% of its $133 million in theatrical grosses through November. From his office on Rome’s Aurelian Way, managing director Giampaolo Letta ascribes Medusa’s Italo market leadership to its wide range of product.

“The challenge for us is to hold the top spot with a mix of commercial and specialized product,” Letta says. In terms of local goods, Medusa runs the gamut from prurient hit teen romancer “Sorry if I Call You Love,” in which a 17-year-old brat falls for a thirtysomething hunk, to auteur Pupi Avati’s dark Fascism-set psychodrama “Giovanna’s Father,” one of the few Italo titles to fare well here after this year’s Venice Fest.

In a year that has seen “Gomorrah” and “Il Divo” — neither of which are from the Medusa stable — capture Cannes nods, conquer auds at home and boost Italian cinema internationally, the domestic share of the Italian market has merely remained stable, currently at 27%.

Still, local releases are more and more the driver for Medusa, which in November inched past Universal for the numero uno spot, with a 17.8% market share against U’s 17.5%, according to national box office compiler Cinetel. Of course, it helped that Medusa released the highest number of titles in Italy this year, 34, compared with 22 releases to date for Universal.

“There is a consistent improvement in the once rocky rapport between Italian audiences and Italian movies,” Letta says. “We are gradually dispelling the prejudices that until a few years ago caused many Italians to automatically refuse to see an Italian movie.”

Medusa is also peppering its lineup with Hollywood fare including Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Leonardo DiCaprio pic “Shutter Island,” Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Bruno,” and new works from the Coen brothers and Woody Allen. But it recently left AFM empty-handed, with Letta lamenting a “lack of availability of high-profile U.S. titles,” almost all of which are going out internationally via the majors.

Medusa has achieved “major” status in Italy, especially since recently merging with sister company Mediaset, after Mediaset became the main shareholder in global TV content giant Endemol, a move that put former top Mediaset news honcho Carlo Rossella in the post of Medusa president.

However Letta says the production/distribution/exhibition powerhouse’s new configuration will not impact the specific mix of art and commerce that is the trademark of Medusa’s production slate, toplined by Tornatore’s ambitious “Baaria.”

A selection of upcoming Medusa pics in various stages:

  • Budgeted at $30 million, “Baaria” marks Tornatore’s most personal film since “Cinema Paradiso” with which it shares the Sicilian setting, though largely shot in Tunisia. An autobiographical epic spanning three generations, “Baaria,” which is Sicilian dialect for Tornatore’s native “Bagheria” village, will be completed in late spring 2009.

  • Gabriele Muccino, after working with Will Smith in Hollywood, is returning to Italy to shoot a sequel to his breakout hit “The Last Kiss” working-titled “Kiss Me Again,” which will catch up with the juvenile “Kiss” characters 10 years later.

  • Helmer-thesp Michele Placido is following up his political noir “Romanzo Criminale” (Crime Novel) with 1968-themed “Il Grande Sogno” (The Big Dream) in which turmoil and student riots are seen through the eyes of a young policeman played by Placido himself alongside a cast of Italo A-listers.

  • Scribe-helmer Federico Moccia is segueing from the huge local success of his “Sorry if I Call You Love” to early amore saga “Amore 14” (Love 14), financed by Medusa and shepherded by Rita Rusic.

  • Commercial directorial duo Carlo and Enrico Vanzina will shoot Antigua-set laffer “Caraibi, Last Minute” (Caribbean, Last Minute) for release in summer 2009.

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