Men in middle eye pix at top in Italy

Mediafilm among most aggressive buyers

ROME — As new players continue to emerge on the Italian acquisitions front, a raft of middlemen traditionally active in television sales is snapping up theatrical rights to top-flight indie product, making waves in the country’s continually changing distribution sector.

The most aggressive of these buyers is Milan-based Mediafilm, which last year acquired Initial Entertainment Group’s “Dr. T and the Women” and “Traffic” for Italy, shepherding both films to success, respectively, through a joint distribution pact with Medusa and a straight service deal with Columbia TriStar.

“Up to now, this trend of middlemen moving away from their background in TV movies and into theatrical product has had a marginal impact on the Italian acquisitions network,” says Medusa CEO Federico di Chio. “But three or four acquisitions like ‘Traffic’ in a year could certainly make it a more serious reality.”

Mediafilm, headed by Ernesto Tabarelli, who has long been a buyer of nontheatrical product such as TV movies and straight-to-video titles for Italy, is assembling a slate of eight to 10 theatrical films per year.

The current lineup includes MDP’s “D’Artagnan” and Pandora’s “White Oleander. Other recent acquisitions include “Scenes of the Crime” from TF1 Intl. and “Frailty” from Lions Gate.

“Even if we go out right now through a service deal with another company, we are very much a distributor in our own right, since we handle every aspect of the release ourselves, from prints and dubbing to marketing and promotion,” Tabarelli says. “Our position is decidedly different from that of simple rights traders who limit themselves … to buying and selling.”

Another new force on the Italo acquisitions front is Alan Young Pictures, headed by Antonello Cuomo and backed by his father, industry veteran Alfredo Cuomo, who for the past 20 years handled the sale of TV rights to the Fox library in Italy.

AYP picked up FilmFour’s gangster noir “Sexy Beast” and Lolafilms’ Spanish comedy-thriller “Common Wealth,” both released through upstart distrib Nexo.

Other operators expanding from TV rights into theatrical include Dall’Angelo Pictures, which picked up “Heartbreakers,” placing the comedy with the Italian pubcaster’s fledgling releasing arm RAI Cinema.

Industry observers see the crossover onto theatrical turf for these players as a result of the diminished appetite for telemovies and direct-to-video fare in Italy.

As reality TV and homegrown tube drama increase their stronghold, rights traders have found themselves handling a less desirable commodity and have begun securing choice theatrical titles in order to stay in the game.

“These are smart, experienced operators who know the TV sector extremely well, so they’ve found a way to survive despite changes in the market,” says Valerio De Paolis, head of arthouse distrib BIM.

“It’s true that the television market has become more restrictive,” agrees Alfredo Cuomo. “But the theatrical distribution market in Italy has also become a bigger risk. So it makes sense for companies like us to buy titles and then sell them on to theatrical distributors or to buy films jointly like we did with ‘Common Wealth’ and Nexo.”

The radical downsizing of the Cecchi Gori Group’s distribution activity in recent years due to cash-flow problems no doubt has greatly contributed to the emergence of new acquisitions entities.

Moreover, the years of experience handling telepics and B-product may even give intermediary companies an edge in securing plum titles. Tabarelli’s extensive dealings in the past with Initial topper Graham King, for example, are believed to have helped him make the “Traffic” deal.

What perplexes some established distribs — who understand the dash for cash needed to complete a film’s financing — is why international companies would choose to sell their product to a middleman, thus generally having less of a say in how the film is positioned theatrically.

While most rights sales guarantee a theatrical run, in at least one case, this has fallen through.

Rizzoli Audiovisivi, a Rome-based company long active in TV production, late last year bought all Italian rights to “The Contender” from TF1 Intl. But a deal for March theatrical release through Fox was abandoned, and Rizzoli has opted to premiere the Oscar-nominated drama directly on national television.

Ultimately, some companies like AYP say they intend to remain in the middle ground rather than move directly into distribution, while others, like Mediafilm, seem to be inching toward establishing their own banners.

Tabarelli acknowledges that while he will continue channeling most titles through Col TriStar, “That’s not to say a move by Mediafilm into direct distribution (some time next year) is not likely.”