ROME – When Dino De Laurentiis plunked down $10 million from his own pocket last year for film rights to Thomas Harris’ “Silence of the Lambs” sequel, “Hannibal,” it was a move that conjured echoes of a breed of risk-taking producers now all but extinct.
“I’m probably the last truly independent producer that exists in America,” says the feisty octogenarian. “When I want to buy a book, I buy it with my own money instead of going to a studio. If you depend on a studio you become that studio’s employee. You sit around while 44 people rule on every decision then maybe you get the project, maybe you don’t.
“Doing things my way means I’ve lost millions on certain deals over the years,” continues De Laurentiis. “Clearly, not every decision is the right one. But I’ve managed to avoid being a studio slave and remain my own boss.”
Displaying the kind of drive and energy that many producers half his age struggle to muster, De Laurentiis, 81, is winding up a period of frenetic activity, working alongside his wife, producer Martha De Laurentiis. After shepherding Jonathan Mostow’s WWII submarine thriller “U-571” to U.S. B.O. success, he segued straight into production on “Hannibal,” with Ridley Scott directing.
The $80 million psychological thriller, which MGM will open domestically Feb. 14, is wrapping principal photography on schedule in Virginia and North Carolina after completing initial shooting in Florence, Italy. It stars Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman and Ray Liotta.
“People often ask where my stamina comes from,” says De Laurentiis. “I tell them I still have the three C’s, cuore, cervello e coglioni. As long as you have the three C’s, you’re ageless.”
The three C’s De Laurentiis so eloquently refers to are “heart, brains and balls,” equipment that has steered him through a 60-year career embracing classic European art films, costly international spectacles and Hollywood blockbusters.
Few, if any, producers working today can match the range of films to which De Laurentiis has lent his name, from the visionary artistry of Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” and “Nights of Cabiria” to the campy sci-fi of “Barbarella,” from grand-scale literary adaptations like “Ragtime” to religious epics such as “The Bible,” and edgy contemporary dramas like “Serpico.”
The son of a Neapolitan pasta maker, De Laurentiis began producing at 19 after leaving home with ambitions of becoming an actor. He had his first significant hit with “Bitter Rice” in 1948.
From his early experience with Italian neorealist cinema, De Laurentiis quickly began expanding his horizons to bigger-budget fare, enlisting foreign screenwriters, directors and stars to work on international spectacles like “Barabbas,” “War and Peace” and “Waterloo.”
“These films conquered audiences all over the world and represented serious competition for Hollywood, giving the American studios cause for concern,” says the producer.
De Laurentiis exploited the appetite for these commercially potent Euro epics by strong-arming distribs into taking on his smaller pictures. Part of the “War and Peace” rights deal was Paramount’s acquisition of “La Strada” and “Cabiria,” then considered noncommercial art films. Both ended up nabbing Oscars.
Along with his impressive producing achievements, De Laurentiis is widely credited with revolutionizing the way films were bankrolled and sold, largely creating the concept of international co-productions, financing through pre-sales and split-rights deals that have become commonplace.
“The idea of independent distribution, selling rights territory by territory, is something I invented in an era when that kind of market didn’t exist,” he recalls. “It created a minor revolution when I moved to America and started doing these deals with films like ‘Serpico’ and ‘Three Days of the Condor,’ selling North American rights to Paramount but keeping international myself.”
The classic police corruption drama “Serpico” marked De Laurentiis’ auspicious entry into Hollywood, buying film rights based only on a single chapter and establishing a precedent for audacious moves that continues to characterize his approach.
“This profession of ours is something you have to love passionately,” muses De Laurentiis. “If a film isn’t made with great love it shouldn’t be made at all.
“This is not an industry of prototypes; every film has a different set of problems, a different story. That’s what makes it so exciting.