If anybody has the pulse of Italy’s rapidly changing movie market, it’s Maria Grazia Vairo, Eagle Pictures’ head of acquisitions.

A native of Connecticut, Vairo has been buying movies in Italy for 20 years, about 10 of which with Eagle, after cutting her teeth with savvy local mogul Aurelio De Laurentiis, who taught her “everything I know,” she says.

Vairo snapped-up “Twilight” before it was hot. She begged her boss to buy “The King’s Speech,” and, going back a bit further, she bought Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which is still Eagle’s all-time top grosser, at almost $30 million at the Italo box office.

These days Vairo is happy about how Eagle is doing with “Limitless,” which she picked up in Berlin in February and — in one of the company’s fastest turnarounds ever — Eagle released on April 15 reaping that frame’s highest per-screen average. She’s not happy about “Kick-Ass,” which bombed a few weeks earlier, but, thanks in large part to “Speech,” which scored in Italy, with a $12.5 million take, she’s quite content that the company is the country’s fourth-largest distributor this year — so far.

“What I try to do is find product that’s different,” she says. “I can’t compete with 01 and Medusa; I really can’t, because they are always going to top me on the money. So I got to get there faster and try to close.”

Or, be really creative and more on the ball.

For example, at AFM last fall, Vairo pre-bought the now in-the-works Stephen Sommers’ adaptation of Dean Koontz’s “Odd Thomas,” the bestselling novel about a clairvoyant short-order cook who encounters a mysterious man with a link to dark forces.

“It’s a very very funny, moving, well-developed story,” she enthuses. “It’s one of those scripts that I just fell in love with. No one else in Italy had read it!”

A few months ago, Vairo bought Aussie hit “Tomorrow When the War Began” from Paramount Vantage, based on John Marsden’s series of novels about teenagers waging a guerrilla war against an invading alien power.

Then she said: “Let’s see what we can do with this movie.” She worked on a deal with Italian publisher Fazi, which published “Twilight,” and now they are going to be co-marketing the property, which has franchise potential and “try to create something with a limited amount of risk.”

The Italian market, which after a boffo January is now down compared with last year, endures major changes. Italo pics are scoring quite systematically, while American titles, such as “Sucker Punch,” “Faster” and “No Strings Attached” are often falling flat.

“American movies hardly open at number one anymore,” notes Vairo. “They open number two, number three, and the majors are getting pissed off.”

One big change:

“Five or six years ago, American romantic comedies were king,” she says. They would often do better in Italy than anywhere else. While they didn’t work that well in homevideo, they were the leader of the pack if you were putting together a TV package.

But now “local movies satiate the Italian appetite for romantic comedies. These days if you ask an Italian female whether she would rather go see an American romance or an Italian one, for the most part she will say an Italian one,” says Vairo.

And, despite gripes from some Italo exhibs, 3D is not dead.

“I do, for the right project, definitely believe that there is a future in 3D, but as long as it’s something interesting, and it’s beautiful 3D because after it was the flavor of the month, everybody put out these 3D movies that were just converted and not very good,” says Vairo.

That’s why Eagle is co-producing the “Sammy’s Adventures” sequel (working title “Escape From Paradise”) and also African Safari 3D with Belgium’s nWave and Studio Canal, a move that will up its European product quotient.

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