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Cinecitta plan spurs staff protest

Workers fear $200 mil makeover will dismantle production

ROME — A planned revamp of Rome’s Cinecitta studios is sparking heated employee protests — and in the middle of the controversy last week, a fire broke out inside its Studio 5 soundstage, where Federico Fellini used to create his films.

Italy’s top production complex, looking to lure more international shoots, is trying to move forward with a $200 million makeover comprising a hotel and wellness center, office space, a new soundstage and state-of-the art services through a pool of new companies, including Hollywood-based Deluxe Entertainment Services.

The plans would shake up the studio’s working environment that has, for the most part, remained unchanged since William Wyler shot “Ben-Hur” there in 1959.

This prospect has prompted some 200 Cinecitta employees to go on the warpath — including a July 11 protest in which workers, having pitched tents on the lot, flying union flags on roofs, and unfurling a large banner over the entrance that reads “Cinecitta Okkupata,” used their skills to create fake snowfall on the Colosseum.

Their call to arms against “cementification” of the backlot has resonated with international helmers such as Michel Hazanavicius and Constantin Costa Gavras, after their Italo colleagues, including Bernardo Bertolucci and Ettore Scola, launched a petition to stop the plan, which they called a “dismantling” of Cinecitta’s film side.

“There is a basic misconception that we are building something on the lot that has nothing to do with cinema, but all we are trying to do is become more competitive, so that more movies can be made at Cinecitta,” said Cinecitta Studios prexy Luigi Abete at the Ischia Global Film and Music Festival. “We can’t compete with Eastern Europe in terms of costs, so we will have to make up the difference with the quality of services, and these will include onsite accommodations for crews.”

Abete pointed out that the 200-room hotel and wellness center and a new 13,000-square-foot soundstage would not be built on the backlot but on an abandoned adjacent site.

“It’s an evolution, not a revolution,” says Emmanuel Gout, who runs Cinecitta World, which is due to start construction next year on a $600 million Cinecitta theme park designed by set-designer Dante Ferretti on a separate site.

Abete and Gout adamantly emphasize that nobody is being fired, though there are plans to redeploy some of the studio’s set-design staff for the theme park, at least temporarily.

“We need to explain more effectively that things are changing for the better,” adds Gout, who logged plenty of phone time with Hazanavicius, doing just that.

Indeed, modernization at Cinecitta does seem key to luring more international shoots to Italy. Its soundstages, some of which date back to 1937, haven’t seen much foreign action lately despite the country’s generous 25% tax break, capped at $7 million, introduced in 2009.

Recent shoots include some interiors for Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love,” bits of Carlo Carlei’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Beta’s “Borgia” skein. But the last big foreign production to set up camp and use Cinecitta its full glory was HBO’s “Rome,” which shuttered in 2006, after two costly, albeit visually rewarding, seasons.

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