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GOING TO THE MOVIES

With the Italian box office settling into its customary summer-time lull, national distribs are focusing attention on their lineups for the 1995-96 season, which kicks off this fall. Set to join the fray as a major player is the new Fininvest film division, Medusa.

Headed by CEO Carlo Bernasconi, Medusa takes its name from the now-defunct film distrib acquired by Silvio Berlusconi Communications in the mid-1980s. The new outfit takes over one of the old functions of Mediaset, which a year ago began operating as the umbrella overseeing the TV interests of Fininvest.

The formation of a new group film division follows the meltdown of Penta Film, the five-year production and distribution pact Berlusconi set up with Vittorio Cecchi Gori, which officially ceases operating July 31.

Bernasconi’s intention is to keep Medusa separate from the Mediaset package currently luring prospective buyers from Rupert Murdoch to Saudi prince Al Walid ben Talal. Mediaset oversees Fininvest’s three commercial TV webs, ad agency Publitalia, television production arm RTI and broadcasting rights to an extensive library of feature films.

The definitive structure of Medusa is still being fine-tuned, but plans are being studied to make the division, which includes the distribbery, a homevideo label and the 40-screen national hardtop circuit Cinema 5, an autonomous entity from its Fininvest parent company.

Much of the beef on Medusa’s inaugural slate comes from pacts with Morgan Creek, Castle Rock and Turner, which are supplying titles such as “Forget Paris,” the sequel “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” and Harold Becker’s “City Hall,” toplining Al Pacino.

Other pickups include Keanu Reeves starrer “Johnny Mnemonic,” “Never Talk to Strangers” with Rebecca DeMornay and Antonio Banderas, “Imaginary Crimes” with Harvey Keitel and “The Jungle Book.”

Among 1996 releases are “Diabolique,” now in pre-production; Demi Moore in “Striptease,” the new version of “Othello”; slated to star Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Fishburne and Irene Jacob; and Mel Brooks’ “Dracula: Dead and Loving It.”

Eclectic lineup

“Our lineup has been put together with a large number of American independents, some quality European titles and a lot of Italian films,” Bernasconi told Variety.

Euro features on the slate include Brit cult item “Shallow Grave” by Danny Boyle, and French comedy-kidpic “An Indian in the City,” a runaway B.O. smash at Gallic wickets.

“We are investing a lot of money in the Italians, putting up production costs in advance, but not intervening directly as producers,” says Bernasconi. “We believe very strongly in the possibility of relaunching Italian cinema.”

Medusa will wholly finance a solid crop of Italo titles. Among them are Lina Wertmuller’s “Viva Nuvolari,” a comedy based on the life of legendary 1930s Formula 1 racing champ Tazio Nuvolari, and Dario Argento’s f/x-laden serial-killer thriller “The Stendahl Syndrome.” The film hinges on the rare medical condition of the title, whose victims are subject to extreme reactions before great works of art.

‘ Bravo’ on tap

Also included is “Bravo, Randy,” Alessandro D’Alatri’s follow-up to his hit feature “No Skin.” Shooting in English on U.S. locations late this summer, the gently comic story of a young drifter and the trio of women he encounters in a hospital emergency ward is tipped to star Greta Scacchi and Valeria Golino.

Other Italo films coming via Medusa are “Savages” from B.O. champions Carlo and Enrico Vanzina, “Croce e Delizia” by popular philosopher Luciano De Crescenzo and veteran Mario Monicelli’s “Facciamo Paradiso” with Margherita Buy and Philippe Noiret.

“For our comedies, we’re banking on sure-fire directors like Wertmuller, De Crescenzo and the Vanzinas,” said Bernasconi. “We’re also investing in genre filmmakers like Argento and new talents like D’Alatri.”

Medusa’s support of national cinema extends to the sponsorship of an additional prize recently created by the organizers of the Premio Solinas for the best unproduced Italian screenplay.

Prime strength

The prime asset behind Medusa’s strategy will be marketing and publicity expertise, normally a weak link in the Italo distribution chain.

The outfit’s ability in the promotional arena has been successfully put to the test over the past year with Mediaset releases, led by “The Crow” and “Stargate,” which grossed a hefty $28 million between them.

“We invest a lot in publicity and we know how to launch our films to the best advantage,” said press chief Margherita Pedranzini.

The major muscle afforded by Fininvest’s three TV channels is particularly significant, allowing for saturation trailer placement and wide coverage through making-of specials, interviews and even features on the webs’ primetime newscasts.

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