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Friends, Romans, Hollywood filmmakers …

Rome's mayor leads drive to put the city back on top of cinema world

In his office atop the Capitoline Hill, overlooking ruins of marble columns and monumental arches standing in the sunshine-filled Forum, Rome’s Mayor Walter Veltroni speaks calmly, but with the fervor of a man with movies on his mind.

“Rome is an extraordinarily beautiful city, but it is not a museum. It has to transmit new energy. My effort is to enliven it. Cinema, obviously, has a privileged status in this effort,” the mayor says with a complicit smile.

The son of a respected RAI exec, Veltroni, 50, graduated from Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia film school before entering politics with Italy’s former communist, now pro-market, Democratic Party of the Left. A former editor of leftist daily L’Unita and a prolific writer — two of his books are being made into films — he has served as Italy’s deputy premier and its culture minister. Veltroni became Rome’s mayor in 2001, leaving national politics for local leadership.

While there is room for improvement, Rome in recent years has taken tremendous strides as a city of cinema. Consolidating its standing as the hub of the Italo industry — 80% of film and TV productions are financed and shot there — the political capital is steadily luring more local and international productions (see chart), causing revenues at studios, equipment rentals, film labs, post-production facilities and other tech services to rise from $361 million in 2002 to $451 million in 2004. The number of companies operating in the sector concurrently grew by 11% to roughly 1,500.

In April HBO/BBC’s “Rome” kicked off production of series two in a big swath of the Cinecitta backlot, while “Mission: Impossible III” world-preemed in Rome’s Adriano multiplex, a clear sign of recognition to Veltroni, who has cultivated a rapport with Tom Cruise and other Hollywood stars. The mayor last year stopped boat traffic along the Tiber for lensing of an “M:I-3” speedboat chase on the historic waterway.

Italy’s film community has become increasingly dependant on the film arms of Italy’s two major broadcasters as its principal film financing sources. Both are headquartered in Rome.

Medusa Film, which is housed on the Aurelian Way, was set up by Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset in 2000 and quickly became the local market leader. The same year, pubcaster RAI entered theatrical distribution with RAI Cinema, now the country’s top distrib.

“From an industrial perspective it’s a good thing, and I’m partly responsible for it,” says Veltroni, pointing out that as culture minister, he drafted a law forcing broadcasters to invest 20% of their coin on local product.

“The problem is that there is a TV duopoly, and that is the real Italian anomaly,” he says.

Veltroni notes openings do exist for those operating outside the system, though they certainly don’t counterbalance the broadcasters. Nanni Moretti self-financed and released his satirical anti-Berlusconi smash “The Cayman” via his Sacher Film, which also runs an arthouse theater in the capital. Aurelio De Laurentiis steadily churns out comedy hits via his totally indie Filmauro powerhouse. On the distribution front, Eagle Pictures has managed to carve out a substantial market share.

“Aside from being a great cinema lover, I think Veltroni has an extremely competent understanding of what the film industry’s needs are,” says Warner Bros. Italia chief Paolo Ferrari, who also heads Italy’s motion picture association ANICA.

The Eternal City has undoubtedly become more industry-friendly under Veltroni’s reign. Shooting permits are easier and cheaper to obtain. A still struggling national cinematheque has opened near the Trevi Fountain, as has Casa del Cinema for screenings and confabs, and the Renzo Piano-designed Auditorium, which will become the hub of the ambitious upcoming Rome Film Festival, seen as a key promotional tool.

The idea is that “if Rome can have a more prominent role in the world as a city of cinema, that will also help our movies abroad,” says Rome fest prexy Goffredo Bettini.

“I hope that the fest can become a bridge with international markets,” says RAI Cinema topper Giancarlo Leone, who sees it as working in parallel to the venerable Venice fest. “Venice will remain Venice, and (it) has huge value for us,” Leone adds.

How the two events will manage to constructively co-exist, however, remains to be seen.

While the central government under Berlusconi drastically cut film funds, Veltroni and other leftist local leaders are planning to introduce regional subsidies for all movies made in the area, regardless of nationality. For foreign productions, swift reimbursements of 20% VAT tax rebates, which currently take up to two years, also are on the way, they vow.

Veltroni, of course, has a vested interest in all this. His short story collection “Senza Patricio,” set in an imaginary Buenos Aires, is the inspiration for Gianni Amelio’s next project. “Il Disco del Mondo,” a bio Veltroni wrote of Italian jazz pianist Luca Flores, who played with Chet Baker and committed suicide at 30, also is getting cinematic treatment, directed by Renzo Martinelli, with hot thesp Kim Rossi Stewart (“Crime Novel”) attached to play the lead.

His dream before going into politics was directing, which Veltroni does not rule out. “You might see my debut when I’m 70,” the mayor muses. And he’s not entirely kidding.

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