Straffi sets sights on U.S. for 3D 'Gladiators of Rome'

Having lured global eyeballs with fairies, Italian TV animation mogul Iginio Straffi is aiming to conquer American moviegoers with warriors.

“Gladiators of Rome,” a stereoscopic 3D toon made with Hollywood in mind, is scheduled to hit U.S. screens via Paramount in wide release in April 2013. The pic is part of a deal that Straffi inked last year with Viacom, which took a 30% stake in his Rainbow Studios, the outfit that has sold “The Winx Club” TV series to 130 markets around the world. “Gladiators” marks the first Italo toon to enter the U.S. mainstream.

“The deal influenced the way we made the movie,” Straffi said, as he prepared to screen a partial cut of the film for international distributors.

Straffi, who directs the film, is touting “Gladiators” as the first high-profile toon set in ancient Rome. The story turns on a lazy young gladiator-in-training who, after falling for the daughter of his instructor, must win a contest during the grand opening of the Colosseum in order to marry her.

Having Paramount onboard prompted him to have more work done on the pic’s screenplay, first penned by Michael J. Wilson (“Ice Age,” “Shark Tale”) and reworked by Jim Hecht (“Ice Age: The Meltdown”) in order to broaden the audience demographic by targeting some of the humor to parents. Straffi also decided to have all post-production done at Pinewood Studios in London, rather than in Italy, where it would have been cheaper by about a third. The rest of the production work was done in Italy.

“Gladiators are kind of like the popular TV wrestlers of the past,” says Straffi, “so we think young males will latch onto that, while the love story (will draw girls).”

The pic’s budget, at around $40 million, pales in comparison with Hollywood animated blockbusters. But a good deal of the film’s costs, including Straffi’s director fee, have been deferred and significantly reduced by production being done internally. Rainbow is shouldering most of the investment, thanks to its healthy profits from “Winx Club,”, especially from merchandise tie-ins.

That femme-skewed TV show, featuring six fairies, has been playing on Nickelodeon to solid ratings for a year, after airing globally. Winx dolls, which Straffi says outsell Barbie dolls in Italy and Russia, will be hitting the shelves of U.S. toy stores in late August, to be distributed by Jakks Pacific.

“Our model is to conquer new markets every year,” says Straffi, who started out in comics before becoming a storyboarder and TV toon director in the 1990s. In 1995, he started Rainbow, which is now Italy’s leading animation outfit, and among the top toon studios in Europe. The step up to the bigscreen came about because Straffi saw how few animated films were coming out of Europe (“and none in Italy,” he notes).

“Now we will be playing with the big guys, and we’ve got to do it right, because we aren’t going to get another chance like this,” the mogul says.

Last year, he launched the sprawling Rainbow MagicLand, Rome’s first theme park, which despite feeling the pinch from the country’s economic crisis, is “doing well enough,” according to Straffi.

The multihyphenate considers MagicLand a great marketing tool for “Winx” and other hit Rainbow properties. And while the park does not yet feature a “Gladiator” attraction, Straffi is hoping the film will drive demand.

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