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Tax Breaks Bringing Hollywood Productions Back to Italy

The paparazzi have been busy this year chasing stars filming in the Eternal City, as Hollywood has rediscovered Italy, making the country — and Rome’s storied Cinecitta Studios — a hot destination for foreign shoots.

Competitive tax breaks, a great euro-to-dollar exchange rate, and Italy’s depth of crew and craftsmen recently lured Paramount’s “Zoolander 2” as well as MGM and Paramount’s “Ben-Hur” remake, marking the first time in at least a decade that Cinecitta has hosted two big Hollywood productions. Ron Howard’s “Inferno” and the next James Bond installment, “Spectre,” have also shot in Rome and other parts of Italy.

Growing its production sector could be a shot in the arm for the nation’s ailing economy  — after all, as former prime minister Giulio Andreotti famously said of an earlier epic film shoot, “ ‘Quo Vadis’ did more for Italy than the Marshall Plan.”

It was only a few years ago that the media was sounding the death knell for Cinecitta after workers staged a protest in 2012 to draw attention to what they called the studio’s “cementification” plan, involving construction of at least one new soundstage, new offices and laboratories, plus a hotel — on a backlot largely unchanged since the 1950s. The plan is still in place, though no completion date is set. “We said: ‘We are not killing Cinecitta; we are reorganizing it,” says Giuseppe Basso, the studio’s chief executive.

In any event, Cinecitta’s circumstances have improved. What brought the studio back to life was May 2014 legislation in which the government raised the cap on its 25% tax break for international film productions, now extended to television, from $5.4 million to $10.7 million. While the 25% refund is standard for Europe, the Italo edge is that the credit is cash back, with no refund necessary. “You just deduct it from your expenses each month,” Basso says. Meanwhile, the weaker euro gives foreign productions more bang for their buck.

Basso credits the revival to culture minister Dario Franceschini, who listened to the production community and pushed through the long-gestating legislation, designed to allow Italy to compete with European rivals such as Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and “especially the U.K.,” notes Basso.

The Italian tax incentive now has been codified into law, “making it a solid, long-lasting reality,” notes “Zoolander 2” line producer Marco Valerio Pugini, whose Panorama Films partner Ute
Leonhardt served as line producer for “Inferno,” which recently shot over two weeks in Florence.

“The first part of the year has been going well — four big international productions at the same time,” Pugini says. “I don’t know how the second half will go; I just hope it’s not a flash in the pan.”

The Rome rumor mill has Pierce Brosnan heading to the city soon for Voltage-produced thriller “I.T.” (though plans to bring Working Title and Universal’s live-action “The Little Mermaid” to Cinecitta were scrapped after Sofia Coppola exited the project).

For now, “Zoolander’s” star-studded cast is keeping local photographers happy — among those spotted around town are Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West, Will Ferrell, Willie Nelson, Naomi Campbell and Penelope Cruz. The sequel is shooting over 12 weeks in Rome locations, including the Colosseum.

Meanwhile, “Ben-Hur,” directed by Timur Bekmambetov and starring Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman, began production in February in Matera, the ancient Southern village with prehistoric whitewashed caves last seen in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” In March, production moved to Cinecitta, where William Wyler’s 1959 version was shot in the studio’s postwar glory days (launched by 1951’s “Quo Vadis,” which starred Deborah Kerr and Robert Taylor).

But this “Ben-Hur” is completely new. “We have not repurposed anything,” says the film’s producer, Sean Daniel.

Monumental new sets have been created on the studio’s backlot, including the Circus Tiberius for the epic chariot race, while the Ben-Hur family palace was built on the legendary Stage 5, where Fellini had an office — and which became Daniel’s base. Even the story’s naval battle was shot at the studio, with everything built from the ground up.

The chariot race was given the kind of attention needed for a 21st century blockbuster. It took 33 days to shoot, and involved 22 chariots — each with a GoPro camera attached — pulled by 85 horses imported from all over Europe, and driven by actual chariot racers trained in Hungary. Also on hand: between 400 and 500 extras each day.

“From a production point of view, and from a creative point of view, the whole experience has worked out great,” Daniel says.

In mid-February, “Spectre” arrived in Rome for five weeks of work. Local officials bent over backwards to accommodate the production. “They got to shoot in places (that included) all of ancient Rome, plus the Tiber and more modern parts of the city,” says Roma Lazio Film Commission prexy Luciano Sovena.

Red tape was swiftly cleared to provide director Sam Mendes and his crew unprecedented access for a high-speed chase along the Tiber with a car flying off into the river, and Daniel Craig as 007 parachuting from a helicopter onto the 15th century Ponte Sisto bridge. Action sequences, all shot at night, were staged on the cobblestone alleys inside Rome’s historic center, around the Piazza Navona, near the Trevi Fountain, and in the vicinity of the Vatican.

“There are plenty of projects; we will have to understand how to service them best,” says Pugini, who thinks Italy can step up even further to attract Hollywood, including providing more soft money from EU-financed regional funds, as well as waiving the VAT tax, the latter of which would help local line producers who shoulder the cost before it is reimbursed.

For Enzo Sisti, who is working as a line producer on “Ben-Hur” and a production consultant on “Spectre,” the influx of big-budget spectaculars amounts to an affirmation for Italy in general and Rome in particular. “Hollywood realizes you can make this type of movie here,” Sisti says. “We have the crews, the equipment, the sun, the cash-back incentives. We are starting to be believable again.”

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