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Leone Film Group at 30: From Spaghetti Westerns to Hollywood Movies

Italy’s Leone Film Group, the company founded by Spaghetti Western master Sergio Leone, has been on a roaring roll since 2012.

That’s when his children, Raffaella and Andrea, who now run the company, spotted a theatrical distribution gap left open by Medusa and Rai Cinema and stepped in to swiftly sign an output deal with DreamWorks. This, in turn, propelled its expansion.

The two Leone siblings hadn’t been idle before then. They were already among the top distributors of TV movies in Italy, having delved into that market in 1989, the year their father founded the company. That was also the year that Leone Sr. died.

In those days, driven by Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset, Italian TV was flourishing, recalls Andrea. “For us, movies are a passion; but at the same time they are business,” he says. During that period, “there was serious opportunity to do business in that segment.”

“Our father had left us a moral and artistic inheritance,” Raffaella says. But, besides the LFG shingle, there was “nothing concrete,” she adds, noting that when their father died Andrea was 21 and she was 27. So “the reality is that this was a profession we had to invent [for ourselves].”

Of course, the Leones both had the know-how and contacts of a life spent in the movie milieu. “But it’s not like we could say: ‘tomorrow we are going to turn into producers,’” Raffaella says.

They went to the top U.S. companies then making prime TV product, such as Nu Image, Promark, Largo Entertainment, Castle Rock and New Line, and did output deals with them.

“We had it clear in our mind how to develop the business,” Andrea says. It’s just that at the time buying for TV and home video was more profitable and less risky.

But there were exceptions, including Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” LFG’s first big acquisition for theatrical, picked up from producer Graham King and released in 2001. The pic won four Oscars and turned out to be “a lucky experiment.”

In 2009 the Leones dipped their toes into local production with Milan-set youth comedy “The 1,000 Euros Generation,” about the trials and tribulations of Italy’s 30-somethings in the country’s tough job market.

Cut to 2012. Berlusconi-owned Medusa and pubcaster RAI’s Rai Cinema, both offshoots of Italian broadcasters, started to focus more on local TV series and films. As a result, prices dropped and top-tier production companies in Hollywood were sending LFG their lineups.

“Things changed, and we were forced to change with them,” Raffaella says.

Andrea adds: “If we hadn’t done it, someone else would.” But they “had to move very quickly.”

The first step was the DreamWorks output deal in 2012 followed closely by two big acquisitions that year: Ron Howard’s “Rush,” sold by Alex Walton’s Exclusive Intl., and Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Both were released by Rai Cinema’s 01 Distribution with whom LFG now has a multi-year first-look deal. Another major multiyear output deal with Summit Entertainment soon followed.

Rai Cinema chief Paolo Del Brocco says the Leones came to him just as Italy’s pubcaster was shifting resources from international product toward Italian movies.

“They didn’t ask us to buy outright, we would have refused,” he says. They asked him to come in as 50/50 partners and share the risk on a title on which they had already invested and bought for a good price.

“What I really liked was their true entrepreneurial spirit,” Del Brocco says. “Instead of buying full rights ourselves, we had found someone with whom to share the risk and invest less.”

It was a new business model for Italy. One that fulfilled Rai’s need to pepper its mostly Italian lineup with some big international titles and then became the blueprint for LFG’s deals with other local distributors.

In between the successful Italian releases of “Rush” and “Wolf” Leone Film Group in December 2013 was floated on the Milan bourse.

Then in February 2014 came LFG’s acquisition of Italian production company Lotus Entertainment, now known for quality commercial pics such as megahit concept movie “Perfect Strangers” and Gabriele Muccino’s “No Place Like Home,” which was numero uno at the domestic box office in 2018.

Also last year Leone scored with Julia Roberts-starrer “Wonder,” which pulled its best European box office haul in Italy, grossing $14 million via 01 Distribution. Other titles bought by LFG that have yielded standout Italian results over the years include “The Hateful Eight,” also via 01; Spielberg’s “The BFG,” through Medusa; plus “Wind River” and “The Green Book,” both via Eagle Pictures.

“Leone Film Group are one of the most sophisticated and reliable distributors in Europe, not just Italy,” says AGC Studios chairman and CEO Stuart Ford, who has done business with them on “Hacksaw Ridge,” among other pics.

“As a distributor they set themselves only the highest creative marketing standards … and can be relied upon to adopt maximum ambition for their films.”

Though LFG is not direct distributors (besides Rai, they work with Medusa, Lucky Red, Eagle Pictures, and others) in terms of box office they have become the top player in Italy after the majors.

The group’s 2018 revenues were €107.6 million ($121 million), roughly two-thirds of which came from production. While earnings were $34.2 million of which $13.5 million came from production and $20.6 million from distribution. It releases 15-18 titles a year.

In 2019, bucking the Italian box office’s downward trend, the Leones have done brisk biz with “Mia and the White Lion,” “Vice,” “Green Book,” released via Eagle Pictures, and more recently with “After,” via 01 Distribution. It opened at No. 1 at the box office recently in Italy, scoring $3.2 million in its first frame.

“They quickly identify what they want and then they go after it,” says Voltage Pictures president and COO Jonathan Deckter, who recounts how he got into business on “After.” “We sent the script out on a Thursday. By Friday morning the entire team had read it, come up with a marketing plan … by noon we had a deal.”

LFG’s Berlin Film Festival acquisitions include Taylor Sheridan’s Angelina Jolie-starrer “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” from CAA Media Finance.

In February the company inked a major deal with Amazon Prime Video giving the streaming giant full exclusive Italian pay-TV rights to all of Leone’s local releases for the next 30 months.

The group in recent years has also started servicing Hollywood productions in Italy, most recently Michael Bay’s “6 Underground” for Netflix.

“My father became who he was partly because in his day they shot international movies in Italy,” Raffaella says. Taking their cue from Sergio Sr. she and her brother are looking “to co-produce more with Americans and Europeans in order to give Italian directors more access to the international market.”

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