Plans to transform Rome’s storied Cinecitta studios by adding a glitzy hotel and theme park has ignited “Occupy”-style outrage from some of the Italian film industry’s most skilled set designers and costumers.
More than 200 artisans approached a fourth week of demonstrations Thursday against the projected makeover, which includes a 200-plus-room hotel and spa, an expansive subterranean parking structure and several upscale restaurants.
Top studio executives, including Cinecitta Studios president Luigi Abete, say the $200 million makeover will help lure international film crews back to its famed back lots, the site of American epics like Ben-Hur and Cleopatra, and the contemporary productions of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
According the studio’s Web site, it has executed changes that transform Cinecitta, the undisputed hub of Italian cinema, from a “large monolithic, state owned entity” into a group of smaller companies that are “more agile” and specialize in streamlined production.
This doesn’t sit well with Simona Balducci, a set designer who has worked at Cinecitta for 15 years. Balducci said she’s been on strike, camping outside Cinecitta for the past three weeks, in an “Occupy Wall Street” fashion. Her concern: By breaking up Cinecitta, the smaller companies would be able to “rent and sell workers to third parties.”
“How does the building of a hotel and other [amenities], along with the depletion of workers from the Studios, guarantee the preservation of [our] vocation?” said Balducci.
Developers also plan to break ground next year on “Cinecitta World,” a studio-inspired, $600 million theme park akin to Universal Studios Hollywood, although the park continues to be postponed.
Once a wholly public institution, Cinecitta’s transformation is a symptom of the contemporary “global entertainment market” and of Italy trying to find its niche under the current framework, explained Karen Pinkus, a professor of Italian and comparative literature at Cornell University, who specializes in Italian cinema.
“Italian cinema has been pretty moribund for a long time,” said Pinkus, adding that the privatization of Cinecitta, coupled with their skilled laborers, could conceivably bring back foreign filmmakers.
Although the studio’s workforce and executives disagree on Cinecitta’s future, there’s no question the historic studio could use the business. Once an international film powerhouse, Cinecitta hosted just eight films and six television shows in 2011. Escaping the high cost of production in Rome, Italian filmmakers and those previously drawn to Cinecitta, are setting up their cameras elsewhere.
“This year, they even filmed an Italian television show about Tuscany in Argentina,” said Fabrizio Laurenti, a director and documentary filmmaker in Rome.
At the heart of the issue is the studio management’s desire to compete in the global marketplace. Production costs in nearby Eastern Europe countries such as Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia are much lower than those in Italy, driving filmmakers away from Rome.
“There is no doubt that Cinecitta needs a revamp to attract more foreign productions,” said Nick Vivarelli, Rome bureau chief for Variety Magazine. “But I wonder whether its top management has really made an effort to create the right climate for this revamp.”
Vivarelli, who has written extensively on Cinecitta, believes it’s “a real shame that workers and management at Cinecitta... can’t seem to be able to sit down and talk calmly about what should be their common goal: to get more movies shot there.”
Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini founded Cinecitta in the late 1930s as his regime’s propaganda hub. The studios enjoyed great success in the 1950s and ‘60s, but declined in the following decades due to financial trouble. By the 1990s, most of Cinecitta’s studios were used for television shows, Laurenti said.
Economics forced the Italian government to auction off ownership of the studios, leaving Cinecitta in a state of limbo. Today, Cinecitta remains on government-owned land, but management decisions are left up to private owners and get very little input from the Italian government.
As Italy continues to struggle with economic hardship and sputtering austerity measures, those closest to the country’s film industry say the government must decide on whether Italian cinema is worth saving.
“Ultimately, Cinecitta’s workers, who are probably the best craftsmen in the world, are the studios’ main assets,” Vivarelli said. “Without their collaboration, any plan [to revive Cinecitta] is domed to fail.”
In the meantime, Cinecitta’s artisans remain in campsites surrounding the studios, located on the outskirts of Rome. And if management has it’s way, accomplished set designers and construction workers could soon be building shopping malls and amusement parks instead of film sets.
“This is not a matter of keeping up an historical site,” Balducci said. “But to carry on a plant that could guarantee a job place to thousands of people and to produce income and culture in this country.”