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VENICE — Having grown to become Italy’s top film player, Medusa Cinema now faces a new challenge: getting the word out that it has no intention of monopolizing the market.

The country’s top film financier and the number one distributor for the past three years, Medusa — the film division of Silvio Berlusconi’s Fininvest conglom — benefits from synergy with sister company Mediaset, Italy’s top commercial broadcaster.

Thanks to that link, Medusa cherry-picks Hollywood titles which go out on its movie screens before being beamed via Mediaset into Italian homes.

With investment of 100 million Euros yearly, a 20% market share and 240 million Euros in revenues this year Medusa has plenty of muscle.

But exec VP Gianpaolo Letta insists its dominant status does not choke Italy’s producers, many of which — Cattleya, Jean Vigo and Fandango — are shepherding projects through Medusa’s pipeline.

“The demise of former top dog Cecchi Gori has really opened the market for Italian indies because it ushered in a new system of production,” says Letta. “We finance films made by the indies much more than they ever did. And now our competitors, like RAI Cinema and Mikado, are doing the same thing,” he adds.

Despite Medusa’s marketing-driven approach, it has not confined itself to mainstream product.

“Medusa is the only company in Italy that covers the entire spectrum of film genres and also types of directors: from U.S. blockbusters to obscure Italian arthouse movies by first-time directors,” Letta says.

In the past year it has released titles as diverse as “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and Italian director Emanuele Crialese’s “Respiro.”

Letta, the son of Berlusconi’s right-hand-man and political backup Gianni Letta, also resolutely counters sporadic allegations that Berlusconi — in his role as Italian prime minister — holds political sway over Medusa’s editorial choices.

“I don’t think any director in Italy can say that Berlusconi represents a threat to his or her creative freedom,” insists Letta.

Certainly, since 1995 when Medusa was created, plenty of outspokenly leftist directors, such as Giuseppe Tornatore, Ettore Scola, and Bernardo Bertolucci have become regular fixtures on Medusa’s slate.

Key projects from Medusa’s pipeline:

  • Tornatore is in script-stage on “Leningrad,” an English-language historical epic depicting the Nazi siege of the Russian Revolution’s birthplace. Letta said he has entered talks for Nicole Kidman to star in the project, for which he is seeking a U.S. partner.

  • Gerard Depardieu is attached to star in Ettore Scola’s drama “Un Drago a Forma di Nuvola” (A Cloud-Shaped Dragon) which is scheduled to start shooting in April 2004 in Italy and France.

  • Cameras are rolling in Rome on “Don’t Move,” a drama starring Penelope Cruz and directed by Sergio Castellitto (“Mostly Martha”).

Other projects in development include the next film by top-grossing comic trio Aldo Giovanni and Giacomo, and pictures by Bernardo Bertolucci and Gabriele Muccino, whose “The Last Kiss” and “Remember Me” were moneyspinners for Medusa.

Medusa owns 107 screens, about 80 of which are in multiplex facilities built in the past three-and-a half years. The company is Italy’s second largest exhibitor after Warner Bros.