Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in early July quietly made a surprise appearance at an open-air film screening in Rome’s central Piazza San Cosimato, where the country’s leader and his girlfriend wore masks and sat on pillows in a socially distanced spot on the pavement.

They attended the thriving “Il Cinema in Piazza” summer arena amid 1,000 spectators who had each passed a thermoscanner before settling down on their free, pre-booked spot to watch Paolo Virzì’s 1994 dramedy “La Bella Vita,” presented by the director. 

The event is run by the Piccolo America nonprofit association, a feisty group of young film buffs who have been shaking things up for years after occupying the nearby shuttered Cinema America movie theater.

There’s greater significance to the org’s summer screenings this year, given a recent legal fight to secure content from local distributors who were wary of films being shown for free in a trying economic climate.

Piccolo America took legal action against Italy’s motion picture association ANICA, claiming they engaged in anticompetitive behavior by trying to get distributors — including Universal, Warner Bros., Disney, 20th Century, and RAI Cinema — to hold back movies that are at the end of their theatrical cycle, for which Piccolo America normally pays a screening fee with funding from sponsors.

A few days after the Prime Minister’s visit, Piccolo America won a favorable sentence from the country’s anti-trust regulator, which ruled that Piccolo America had been subjected to a boycott by Anica and the country’s exhibitors org Anec. Anica and Anec have denied wrongdoing.

Anica president Francesco Rutelli in a statement has pointed out that after Italian movie theaters were allowed to reopen on June 15, local box office has suffered a 98% drop compared with last year. Two-thirds of Italian movie theaters are still shuttered following the coronavirus crisis. The first weekend in August saw 87,000 admissions on 516 screens — including outdoor arenas that charge for a ticket — a screen average of roughly 23 spectators per screen.

Piccolo America spokesman and chief organizer Valerio Carocci says Conte’s visit was “certainly a recognition for what we do,” but did not sway the anti-trust regulator’s decision.

Nonetheless, the sentence prompted plenty of titles to be unlocked for more than 100 free screenings through Aug. 30 in Piccolo America’s three venues, each with 1,000 spots.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski is now expected to come to Rome to present “Cold War” for Piccolo America crowds. “American History X” director Tony Kaye will be introducing that film via Skpe and will also sing a song he wrote for the occasion. Meanwhile, German director Dennis Gansel is planning to present his film “The Wave,” and France’s Mathieu Kassovitz has already presented a screening of “Amélie,” in which he stars, and “Rebellion,” which he directed.

Floating arena

So far, all screenings have been fully booked, Carocci tells Variety. “I believe that cinema can be a great tool after COVID-19 to teach people to live collectively again in the public spaces in our city,” he notes.

Piccolo America isn’t the only association using creative solutions to bring Romans back in front of big screens. Another outside-the-box summer cinema initiative is being hatched by Fabia Bettini and Gianluca Giannelli, artistic directors of the city’s Alice nella Città children’s film festival, an independently-run section of the Rome Film Festival. After launching an initiative during lockdown to screen classic films onto Rome buildings that travelled around the world, they more recently opened a summer arena in Rome’s Tor Bellamonaca quarter. Now, they’re setting up a floating film arena in a pond in the city’s modernist, metaphysical EUR district.

“During lockdown, when we dreaming of being outdoors, we got a lot of calls from people who wanted us to set up a drive-in,” says Giannelli. “But we didn’t like the idea of people going from being locked down in their living rooms to being locked down in their cars at a time when nature was taking over. So we thought of a natural space to show movies within the city,” he adds.

Titles currently set to screen in the EUR floating theater, starting in late August, include the Italian premiere of Chris Butler’s stop-motion animation “Missing Link” along with films by Fellini and other classic Italian titles.

Alice in the City, meanwhile, has also forged an innovative alliance with the Venice Film Festival under which they will be screening five Venice movies in Rome that target a young audience. Prior to the pandemic, the Rome and Venice fests were considered rivals. But these are not normal times.

“During lockdown we started talking to (Venice chief) Alberto Barbera,” says Bettini. “We wanted to use the crisis to generate some new ideas.”