Pop culture hits, art pics propel producer

In Italy, where making movies has become a whole different ballgame from the glory days of Cinema Italiano, Aurelio De Laurentiis still emanates the grandeur of film industry royalty, backed by a symbiotic rapport with a wide audience.

photos/_storypics/DeLaurentiis_milestones.jpg” vspace=”3″ hspace=”3″ align=”left”>A nephew of Hollywood-based movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis, Aurelio is an equally flamboyant figure, sharing his uncle’s sense for pop tastes, dealmaking savvy and willingness to take risks.

Amid a TV-dominated entertainment landscape in which the two main broadcasters, Silvio Berlusconi-owned Mediaset/Medusa and RAI’s RAI Cinema, are also the top film outfits, De Laurentiis’ Filmauro production/distribution banner systematically scores the best box office average. De Laurentiis finances movies straight out of his own pocket — a practice virtually unheard of among contempo Italian industryites.

“I’m a provocateur, an inventor not just of movies, but of new movie concepts,” says De Laurentiis, wearing a polo shirt and sneakers while sipping iced tea in his stately office on Rome’s Quirinale Hill, just across the piazza from Italy’s presidential palazzo.

De Laurentiis’ latest high-concept endeavor is “Amici miei — Come tutto ebbe inizio” (My Friends — How It All Got Started). Fourteen years in development and finally in post via Filmauro’s pipeline, it’s designed as a prequel to Mario Monicelli’s 1975 smash hit comedy “My Friends,” about a bunch of grown Florentines who get their kicks by pulling pranks. One could be forgiven for thinking the prequel focuses on the friends’ childhoods. But the whole movie is instead set in 15th-century Tuscany.

“Look at those costumes!” he enthuses, as a lavish-looking snippet of the new movie screens on his laptop.

He is also developing an ambitious feature with global potential based on the popular Italian toy franchise Gormiti — The Invincible Lords of Nature.

But the movies De Laurentiis is best known for are his Italian Christmas comedies. Known as “cinepanettoni” (panettone is the buttery sponge cake Italians eat at Christmas) since their 1983 inception with “Vacanze di Natale” (Christmas Holidays), the 26 installments in this pop culture institution have almost systematically placed atop the Italo holiday box office despite being regularly reviled by critics. The top earner, “Christmas on the Nile,” pulled in $50 million in 2002, beating “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

Filmauro regularly ranks among the country’s top local distributors, with the company consistently attaining this distinction with a fraction of the titles released by the competition; the De Laurentiis Christmas pics contribute to but are by no means the only factor in the company’s success.

Founded in 1975 by Aurelio and his father Luigi De Laurentiis, Filmauro has released more than 400 pics to date, many by name helmers, including David Lynch, the Coen brothers, Pedro Almodovar, Luc Besson and Roberto Benigni. About a quarter are self-produced.

From the company’s earliest days, Filmauro titles traveled widely and never shied away from ruffling some feathers. In 1977, Damiano Damiani’s intense political thriller “Io ho paura” (I Am Afraid), starring Gian Maria Volonte as a cop with the impossible task of protecting a Mafia- and corruption-fighting judge, went out worldwide via Paramount and triggered something of a stir in Italy.

“On Friday nights, we would regularly have dinner with some of the big Christian Democrat politicians,” De Laurentiis recounts. “And they said to me, ‘Aurelio, what’s with that movie?’ “

But the Aurelio stamp really started in 1980 with Pasquale Festa Campanile’s “Qua la mano” (Give Me Five), a smash hit two-part laffer in which rocker Adriano Celentano plays a priest whose feet go wild when he hears Herb Alpert’s “Rise.”

The double narrative structure of “Give Me Five” was inspired by Stanley Donen’s 1978 musical comedy “Movie Movie,” which “gave me the idea of making a single movie with two different stories and the same cast, giving a movie more rhythm and making it more compressed,” De Laurentiis says.

This idea of combining multiple stories within a single film runs throughout De Laurentiis’ career as a producer, most recently with his two “Manual of Love” pics, a blockbuster pair of crossover romancers made in 2005 and 2007 to a combined total of $45 million in grosses. Both pics were helmed by Giovanni Veronesi and divided into four chapters, including one featuring Monica Bellucci in a steamy wheelchair sex scene.

De Laurentiis hopes to continue the series, courting Robert De Niro to play a divorced American professor living in Rome in the third installment, now in pre-production.

” ‘Manual of Love’ is proof that I reinvented the possibility for serial movies (in Italy); it confirms my capacity to create a franchise,” the producer boasts.

According to Venice Film Festival artistic director Marco Mueller, “It’s really important that Aurelio is very successful as a producer of Christmas comedies, because that gives him the financial and mental space to still be able to work on new cinematic prototypes. He has ideas; he’s always trying something new. And let’s not forget that as a distributor he really pushes the market limits for auteur and offbeat films.”

Most emblematic: “The Kite Runner,” which De Laurentiis persuaded Paramount to sell him for a whopping $5.5 million. Filmauro pulled a staggering $12.6 million from “Runner” in Italy, second on the planet only to its $15.8 million intake in the U.S. He’s also earned boffo returns with “Crash” and, more recently, “Paranormal Activity.”

“There is a big misunderstanding in how I am perceived by my Italian colleagues: They think I just invest in massive amounts of advertising,” he says. “I’ve always believed that distribution is something you have to know deeply. You have to have an in-depth knowledge of the territory where you release your product.”

But some colleagues do give De Laurentiis his due. Fellow producer Riccardo Tozzi credits him with being instrumental to the teen pic wave that has boosted the Italian B.O. in recent years.

A forerunner of that trend is zippy rite-of-passage pic “What Will Become of Us,” a 2004 sleeper hit. De Laurentiis asked Silvio Muccino (helmer Gabriele Muccino’s brother) to write the film, which was set on the island of Santorini and directed by Veronesi.

“Aurelio was among the first to realize how crucial it was for us to reconquer the (local) teen audience, which had become totally captive to Hollywood,” says Tozzi, topper of Cattleya, the Italian production partner for Universal.

Hollywood also seems to occupy a special place in De Laurentiis’ heart. He has been involved in the production of three American movies, most notably classy retro sci-fier “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” which he boldly bankrolled.

During the “Sky Captain” launch, De Laurentiis learned that the Napoli soccer club had gone bust and was up for auction. Though admittedly not a soccer expert, he snapped it up and, within just a few years, managed to bring it back to the Serie A league, making him something of a hero in Naples, the city of his family roots.

“If I had not embarked on the Napoli soccer adventure, I would have definitely moved to Los Angeles in 2004,” he reveals.

Now, De Laurentiis is back to toying with the idea of making Beverly Hills his base in a step that could see him expanding his horizons not just in movies but also in the international soccer arena.

Crude Christmas tales make Italians jolly

Like the holiday sponge cake for which they’re nicknamed, “cinepanettoni” have become an Italian Christmas tradition, with Aurelio De Laurentiis’ series of slapstick hits now prepping its 27th installment.

Year in, year out, the films serve up fast-paced bedroom farce and slapstick with shameless vulgarity. To keep the material fresh, the “Christmas in…” franchise travels to a different exotic location every year (including India, Egypt and Miami to date, with South Africa next on the agenda), pleasing auds while confounding the crix.

As Fabio Ferzetti of the journal Il Messaggero wrote of last year’s “Christmas in Beverly Hills,” “The geological immutability of cinepanettoni demands graphics, not reviews. As in: The farts are up, the copulations are down.”

But not all pundits are so dismissive.

“It’s a triumph of vulgarity, raunchy double entendres, kicks in the balls, old ladies ridiculed for their sexual appetites, farts and buckets of shit in the face. All the better!” reads a favorable writeup of the same film in Il Manifesto by Italo pop culture guru Marco Giusti.

Highbrow auds may frown on the broad comedies, which have become a paragon of Italian political incorrectness, but the locals lap them up, making De Laurentiis’ money-making franchise the globe’s longest-running holiday movie series, per the Guinness Book of World Records. The “Christmas in….” series has grossed more than $600 million in Italy so far.

As De Laurentiis offers in his own defense: “It’s inconceivable that every year for 26 years you make one of the country’s top three movies without coming up with really strong stories and well-honed scripts.”

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