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Eagle Pictures, currently ranked Italy’s No. 4 film distributor, is somewhat of an anomaly in a country where the two big local movie players, Medusa and RAI Cinema, are both sister companies to leading broadcasters.

That means Eagle has to be sharper and quicker, because the recently reconfigured real indie — in which Franco-Tunisian entrepreneur Tarak Ben Ammar took a majority stake in 2007 — lives only by its capability to compete with players that don’t need to comply with market rules as strictly.

“We live and die on the market, which is not the case for Medusa and RAI Cinema” is how Eagle CEO Mark Lombardo puts it.

“If we don’t make money we close down; and to keep the company healthy we have to be really smart,” says Eagle acquisitions chief Maria Grazia Vairo.

Actually shuttering seemed a possibility in 2007, when Eagle Pictures — which started out 25 years ago as a rights trading company, and branched into theatrical distribution in 2001 — had overextended itself financially under previous management.

But these days the leaner and meaner Eagle, which is basically run by two Americans (Lombardo and Vairo), is thriving on a mix of carefully calculated risk, marketing savvy, agile adaptation to Italian audience tastes and plain hard work.

“We don’t spend a lot for movies,” says Lombardo. “If 01 Distribuzione (RAI Cinema’s distribution arm) and Medusa are in the market for a picture, we can’t compete with them because they are willing to pay prices that are way outside the market.”

Both RAI Cinema, the film arm of pubcaster RAI, and Medusa, which is owned by Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset, are known to ink deal memos for high-profile titles at asking prices just to be able to tout hot-sounding lineups with exhibbers.

They are able to amortize those costs by selling the TV rights, in perpetuity, basically to themselves.

But sparring with Italy’s broadcast brats certainly hasn’t prevented Eagle from snapping up some superlative titles, including “Twilight” and “The King’s Speech.”

And, on a smaller scale, Eagle has scored with Gallic literary adaptation “The Hedgehog” and sleeper hit Italo laffer “Basilicata Coast to Coast,” both of which it co-produced, an area in which the company is expanding.

And while genre titles, such as “Saw,” have been Eagle’s main staple in the past, these days the company with close ties to the Hollywood’s indies is really just going, as Lombardo puts it, “for the best possible movies we can afford, that have potential,” in Italy’s rapidly evolving market (see story, page A2), the only requirement is that they can play in multiplexes.

As for getting its pics on local screens, another anomaly that Eagle must contend with is Italy’s often bloated release habits.

In her Rome office along the Tiber, Vairo prints out the latest box office report and points to Italo auteur Nanni Moretti’s Cannes contender “We Have a Pope,” noting that 01 released it on a whopping 448 screens, about one-eighth of the country’s entire theatrical capacity.

“You have to tell me why this company decides to release a fairly adult arthouse film on 448 screens,” she laments.

“That’s ridiculous; it’s a total waste of money,” she adds, noting that each print costs a pretty penny.

And while Moretti’s mild-mannered pic, starring 85-year-old Gallic thesp Michel Piccoli as a panic-striken pontiff who turns to a psychoanalyst for help, weighed-in nicely at No. 2 at the box office, behind “Rio” in that frame, pulling $1.8 million off 447 playdates, via 01, by contrast Bradley Cooper starrer “Limitless,” which went out via Eagle Pictures on a mere 250 screens, came in at No. 3 with $1.6 million, making for a much healthier per-screen average.

“The whole point in our business is to fill movie theaters, but they (01 and Medusa) often push to have those extra screens by using other stronger titles as leverage,” Vairo says

“If 01 is a public service, is this really a public service that they are doing?” Lombardo asks.

Meanwhile, Eagle’s Italo theatrical market share has risen steadily from about 5% in 2007 to 8.5% at present, and is now No. 4 behind Medusa, (35%) 01 Distribuzione (13%), and Warner Bros. Italia (8.7%).

And though its theatrical side, with about 20 releases per year, is the company’s cornerstone, Eagle’s homevid division actually grew in 2010 compared to 2009, thanks in part to proper packaging, proving that other Italian players have, perhaps lazily, overestimated the decline of the local homevid market.

“We concentrated on putting out better products,” says Lombardo.

“We are really playing each individual film and trying to milk it for its full value.Because if we are distributing 21 films, we really need for 16 of those to perform; each in its own category of course.”

Variety Vangaurd: Eagle Pictures:
An Italo indie takes flight | Buyer shows B.O. instincts | Road movie pops for production arm