Italy film industry: Battle on for Cinecitta studios

A scene from Ben Hur, the 1959 movie made at Cinecitta Studios Ben Hur was one of the great movies made at Cinecitta

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One of the world's great centres of movie-making tradition, the Cinecitta studios in Rome, are being riven by a bitter dispute over their future.

This famous place that once rivalled Hollywood is partly under occupation by striking workers.

For more than two months now they have been camped day and night on the roof of the main gatehouse and in an area nearby.

The lighting engineers, set builders and others have rigged up a huge speaker. And from time to time they use it to blast recordings of protests into the compound beyond the gate.

So the sounds of jeering and chanting and blaring horns drift across the movie-making complex.

The studios that call themselves Italy's "Factory of Dreams" are living a nightmare.

At the centre of the row is a plan to restructure the organisation.

'There's a soul'
A strike banner hangs over an entrance to the Cinecitta studios A strike banner has been hanging over an entrance to the Cinecitta studios

The management says it wants to make Cinecitta more competitive, to put it in the right shape to attract the biggest movie-makers.

But the workers say they believe the changes would mark the start of the break-up of the studios, the beginning of the end.

"Cinecitta is an institution, an important leading company in Italy and the world," said Francesco Mancini, a spokesman for the strikers.

"There's a history, a soul. So for us it's important that it remains for both Italian and foreign cinema."

Back in the 1950s and 60s all the big movie stars used to make their way to what was known as "Hollywood on the Tiber".

Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Kirk Douglas and many other screen legends were familiar with Cinecitta's tree-lined avenues.

With ancient Rome on their doorstep, the studios specialised in "sword and sandal" epics.

This is where Charlton Heston won his chariot race in Ben Hur, and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor starred in Cleopatra.

But most of all the studios have been at the heart of Italian cinema.

Fellini's studios

Start Quote

Everything that exists outside the gates of Cinecitta is a huge deposit to be visited, to be raided and brought avidly and tirelessly back to Cinecitta”

End Quote Federico Fellini Italian film director, 1920-93

The late great director Federico Fellini loved the studios, and he remembered coming through the gates as a young man.

"They marked the beginning for me," he said.

"All encounters, relationships, friendships, experiences, travels for me begin and end at the studios of Cinecitta.

"Everything that exists outside the gates of Cinecitta is a huge deposit to be visited, to be raided and brought avidly and tirelessly back to Cinecitta."

Production goes on at the studios today.

In the course of the summer they did work on nearly 20 foreign and Italian television projects.

And large numbers of visitors pour through the permanent exhibition on the site.

But success for Cinecitta has always been measured in terms of its involvement in big movies.

A soap opera being filmed at Cinecitta studios Soap operas are filmed at the studios these days

Woody Allen worked on From Rome With Love at the studios a year ago.

But before that, the last really major international films made at Cinecitta were Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, shot way back in 2004, and Martin Scorsese's The Gangs of New York, which came out a decade ago.

Part of the problem is that it has been cheaper to produce films elsewhere, like in Eastern Europe.

And Cinecitta's management says it needs to be re-structured to help it compete and lure back the top directors.

"The actual economic situation worldwide is changing," said Cinecitta's managing director, Giuseppe Basso. "The movie industry is changing. Cinecitta Studios need to look forward."

"We really believe that we need to be the best in every service that we provide. For this reason we are planning to re-organise."

Theme park

Mr Basso talked of needing to make "brave choices".

The plans involve dividing the organisation up into different companies. There will also be the building of a movie theme park, a hotel and a health spa for visiting film crews.

Start Quote

Francesco Mancini

They don't want Cinecitta to produce films, they will abandon the set”

End Quote Francesco Mancini Spokesman for strikers

But the workers fear that further down the line the restructuring will lead to job losses

And they say they suspect that the plan marks the start of a move away from an emphasis on film-making, and the beginning of a shift towards other kinds of business activity.

"They have a construction project: they want to build a hotel, a beauty clinic, a gym," said the strikers' spokesman, Mr Mancini.

"This worries us. They say it's a way to relaunch Cinecitta but I think it's something that moves in the direction of commercial activity not related to cinema.

"They don't want Cinecitta to produce films, they will abandon the set."

And some leading directors, among them Ken Loach and Bernardo Bertolucci, have sided with the workers.

They have appealed to Italy's head of state, President Giorgio Napolitano, urging him to intervene.

A woman takes a photograph on a Cinecitta studio set representing ancient Rome (image from April 2011) Productions set in ancient Rome are still filmed at the studios

Cinecitta's management categorically denies that it intends to, as the directors put it, "dismantle" film-making at the studios.

It insists that its plans are all about ensuring that big movie production continues.

But some independent, veteran observers of the Italian cinema industry and its economic problems share the workers' concerns.

They fear that in the years ahead the valuable real estate on which the studios were built will be sold off to property developers, and that eventually Cinecitta might disappear.

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