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Italian renaissance lifts box office

Homegrown titles take 43% market

ROME — After decades of disaffection, Italo audiences are sparking to homegrown movies again in numbers unseen since the glory days of Fellini and Antonioni.

The box office is up 23% year-on-year for the first quarter, driven by local titles accounting for a boffo 43% of the market.

Beyond national confines, 2007 kicked off with local helmer Gabriele Muccino’s Will Smith starrer “The Pursuit of Happyness” having nailed the No. 1 spot at the U.S. box office just two weeks before, a feat that boosted the Italo industry’s profile internationally just as local thesps are starting to travel more systematically (see story, Variety.com/Cannes).

Unlike the cinema Italiano heyday of “La dolce vita” and “Blowup,” it’s the decidedly less substantial pics — mostly local romancers with limited export prospects, like saucy smash “Love Manual 2” — that are currently riveting the home crowd.

Two other recent love-themed pics — calculatedly commercial hits “I Want You” and “Night Before Exams – Today” — cater to the teen demographic that Italian producers had, until recently, relinquished to Hollywood.

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More meaty works by venerable, but not always viable, auteurs, such as Ermanno Olmi and his spiritual quest drama “One Hundred Nails” and Turkish-born Ferzan Ozpetek with his bereavement-themed ensembler “Saturn in Opposition,” have also fared well lately at the local box office.

On the whole, a more pragmatic approach to production — one that’s more attuned to audience tastes and less to helmer idiosyncrasies, with a higher premium on production values and local star power — is starting to pay off.

“Italian producers have finally found the courage and capability to speak to the public,” says Paolo Protti, prexy of Italy’s exhibitors.

Exhibitors are also jazzed that this summer, breaking with the nation’s customary releases hiatus, the studios will be launching many Hollywood tentpoles in Italy day-and-date with the rest of Western world. This is expected to help further boost box office returns to banner-year heights.

The current 23% B.O. uptick is sudden — if you consider that grosses rose a mere 2% in 2006 — but not that surprising since local pics, which at present account for nearly half the market, have been steadily gaining ground for several years.

And while savvy producers have been wooing auds with light stuff — Aurelio De Laurentiis’ “Love Manual 2,” featuring a steamy Monica Bellucci sex scene, pulled a lovely $25 million, and Riccardo Tozzi shepherded the hit “I Want You,” toplining teen heartthrob Riccardo Scamarcio (who, incidentally, plays the character who has sex with Bellucci in “Manual 2”) — a crop of pics with greater gravitas and export potential also is in the pipeline.

Like elsewhere in Europe, Italo auteurs these days seem taken with revisiting their recent historical past, be it new angles on the Fascist era or the political turmoil that followed.

Marco Bellocchio is penning a project about Benito Mussolini’s illegitimate son, while Marco Tullio Giordana (“The Best of Youth”) is shooting a pic on a pair of Fascist movie stars.

Creating a stir and also scoring nicely at local wickets before coming to Cannes in Un Certain Regard is “My Brother Is an Only Child,” a recently released comedy by Daniele Luchetti about the bond between two brothers who in the 1960s take to opposite political camps — one a Communist guerilla, the other a neo-Fascist.

In the first tangible sign of a more pro-arts stance in Italy’s post-Silvio Berlusconi era, the current center-left government has upped film funds by 14.4% to $103 million for 2007, a warmly welcomed measure that came after the Berlusconi administration had frozen film funds for most of its five-year reign.

More important, eagerly awaited tax breaks that could usher in equity financing are the centerpiece of film legislation now being drafted by culture czar Francesco Rutelli.

The Italian film industry is still much too dependent on coin coming from just two giant production/distribution sources: Silvio Berlusconi-owned Medusa, the country’s top distributor with a 21% share, and pubcaster RAI’s RAI Cinema. This makes for an industrial system that critics charge mirrors the country’s TV duopoly.

“There are very few Italian producers whom you can call truly independent, because Medusa and RAI control nearly all the financing,” laments Heidrun Schleef, a Rome-based German scribe who is a regular Nanni Moretti collaborator. But Moretti is an exception in a country where few helmers can afford not to turn to RAI or Medusa for financing.

Many other Italo film folk are instead grateful that at least they have Medusa and RAI to turn to.

Meanwhile, the U.S. majors have stepped up investments in local product, especially Warner Bros., which recently co-produced and distributed “I Want You” and “My Brother Is an Only Child.”

“With Italian movies, we’ve reaped results beyond our wildest expectations,” enthuses Warner Bros. Italia topper Paolo Ferrari, who also heads Italo motion picture association Anica.

Now the hope is that Italian pics — most of which are being peddled by non-Italian sales companies — will begin to play more regularly outside their home turf. But that step still seems to be a long time coming.

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