‘Empire’ set razed by fire

Prod'n had wrapped before blaze

A correction was made to this article on July 22, 2004.

This article was updated at 9:21 p.m.

ROME — Flames whipped through Roma Studios Wednesday, virtually destroying the set and production equipment for ABC’s upcoming limited series “Empire.”

The fire required 10 fire trucks and five hours to extinguish. No one was in the facility when the fire broke out, around 7 a.m. local time, and no injuries were reported.

A crew had been shooting pickup scenes on the set until 4 a.m. — just three hours before the blaze broke out.

The ABC mini has been housed there since April.

ABC spokesman Kevin Brockman said the fire shouldn’t affect production on “Empire,” which had already wrapped most of its shooting on that set.

“As of now, we had no plans of returning to it,” he said. “But it’s unfortunate that all the incredible craftsmanship and artistry were lost.”

Nonetheless, the destruction of the sets will make it difficult for the show to return for reshoots; also, producers had planned to hold on to the intricately designed sets for future shoots in the event “Empire” is picked up for another season.

But the Alphabet web said the sets are covered by insurance and can be rebuilt if necessary.

The fire is just the latest in a series of problems to plague both U.S. small-screen gladiator projects currently shooting in Rome. Faced with budget constraints and other issues, ABC earlier this summer scaled back “Empire” from eight to six episodes.

Meanwhile, the set for HBO rival mini “Rome,” at the country’s main facility, Cinecitta, sits quiet while HBO revamps the project. But production is gearing up for filming of episode four in that series; production is slated to resume in August. The paybox has committed to 12 episodes in the first season.

But if execs at ABC thought they had enough problems shooting the “Empire” miniseries in Rome amid increasing exchange rates and competition with HBO’s mega-series, a raging fire was probably the last thing they imagined would beset their undertaking.

“Empire” is slated to air at midseason and has been touted by ABC as the “most lavish and technically complex” series to air on the Alphabet. The $30 million project, from Storyline and Touchstone TV, follows the story of Julius Caesar’s 17-year-old nephew Octavius, who — with the support of his gladiator Tyrannus — battles Marc Antony for control of Rome.

“Empire” had an elaborate set, including a reconstruction of ancient Roman streets and the Coliseum. The production employed 500 people.

The Italian fire department confirmed the entire 37,700-square-foot, four-story-high space and all of its contents were destroyed. That’s virtually the entire studio, which is located on the outskirts of Rome.

Italian news reports Wednesday cited a short circuit in electrical wiring as the cause of the blaze, adding that flames spread rapidly due to wood flooring. But the fire department could not indicate an official cause of the fire by late Wednesday, saying it had not yet ruled out arson.

Dubbed Dinocitta when founded in the 1960s by producer Dino De Laurentiis, the studio hosted John Houston’s “The Bible” and Federico Fellini’s “La Voce della luna.” In 2001, the studio passed to construction magnate Raimondo Pisa. Tarak Ben Ammar sold his interest in Roma Studios about 18 months ago and has no stake in the Italian studio.

The studio underwent a facelift in 2002 that helped revive its biz after a 10-year slump.

(Michael Schneider in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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