Italy’s Production Biz Booms but Box Office Struggles

·6 min read

The Italian film industry is in a paradoxical state: production is booming but box office is bust.

Italy’s five features vying for a Venice Golden Lion – plus a myriad more scattered in other Lido sections – reflect cinema Italiano’s current creative vibrancy, if you look at the cream of the crop; however, the average quality is not that great.

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On the plus side, the country is making a quantum leap forward in terms of the global visibility of its movies just as the number of Italian directors considered bankable in Hollywood, such as Paolo Sorrentino, Luca Guadagnino and Stefano Sollima (“Without Remorse”), to name but a few, is growing.

During the fest’s lineup announcement Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera described the Italian cinema scene as being made of “light and shadows.” He noted that Italy’s movie output over the past year has reached a massive roughly 250 titles, with producers “generally going for quantity over quality.”

The production boom is fueled by Italy’s generous 40% tax rebate and other incentives as well as growing demand from streamers and broadcasters. But Barbera cautioned that this bubble may soon burst.

Meanwhile, Italy’s theatrical admissions in 2021 amounted to a measly 25 million tickets sold, which is almost one fourth of France (which in 2021 reached 96 million). Though in 2022 local cinema going has picked up a bit, Italian admissions for the first half of this year were still down more than 50% compared to the pre-pandemic year 2019, when they reached the 100 million mark. Whereas the theatrical market in other European countries, by contrast, is now bouncing back much better.

At the start of summer RAI Cinema chief Paolo Del Brocco and Medusa boss Gianpaolo Letta – who run the separately run film units of the country’s top linear broadcasters, pubcaster RAI and commercial channel Mediaset – launched a joint cry of alarm asking the government to double to 180 days the country’s current 90-day window between an Italian movie’s theatrical release date and the time it can drop locally on a streaming platform or broadcaster. Both companies have theatrical distribution arms.

The broader window, which has not yet happened, is considered counterproductive by others in the Italian industry who, speaking on background, object that a 180-day window would simply force more local titles to bypass theatrical entirely.

Besides fueling local production, Italy’s tax incentives are also attracting more international shoots. Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, which is undergoing a radical revamp financed by Europe’s post-pandemic recovery fund, are now fully booked and catering to international clients. Fremantle, which has an overall deal at Cinecittà, recently brought over Angelina Jolie with her fifth directorial effort “Without Blood,” an anti-war drama starring Salma Hayek and Demián Bichir, based on a novel by Italian writer Alessandro Baricco and entirely shot in Italy.

Michael Mann this summer has been in central Italy shooting his big-budget biopic “Ferrari” in which Adam Driver plays Italian auto racing impresario Enzo Ferrari, while Penelope Cruz has been cast as his wife Laura.

Conversely, two of the Italian entries in the Venice competition, Luca Guadagnino’s “Bones and All,” with Timothée Chalamet, and Andrea Pallaoro’s “Monica,” starring transgender actor Trace Lysette (“Transparent”), where both shot in Ohio.

Barbera, who considers both these helmers Italy’s “most cosmopolitan” directors, points out that Guadagnino’s next film, the romantic drama “Challengers,” starring Zendaya and set in the professional tennis milieu, is a fully American production, bankrolled by MGM.

“At this point, the only thing that’s Italian about Guadagnino is his name, as well as his taste and talent,” the Venice chief says.

The Italian cinema contingent in Venice clearly reflects how Italian movies are increasingly being conceived with international audiences in mind.

Aside from signaling a shift toward a more cosmopolitan mindset, Italy’s robust roster of Lido launches mixes known names like Guadagnino and Gianfranco Rosi with younger up-and-comers such as Andrea Pallaoro and Roberto De Paolis.

The fact that just one film out of five Italian entries in competition is directed by a woman, Susanna Nicchiarelli, underlines Cinema Italiano’s still persistent gender gap.

Below is a compendium of standout titles:

Competition

“Bones and All,” directed by Luca Guadagnino.

Guadagnino’s first film shot in the U.S. is a romancer involving two young cannibals that reunites the “Call Me By Your Name” director with Timothée Chalamet, who plays Lee, a disenfranchised drifter who falls in love with a young woman named Maren during a roadtrip through Ronald Reagan’s America. Both learn how to survive on the margins of society. Chalamet is set to return to Venice after making a splash on the Lido last year with “Dune.”

“L’Immensità,” directed by Emanuele Crialese.

Crialese broke out with Cannes Gran Prix-winner “Respiro,” followed by “Nuovomondo” and “Terraferma,” which scooped prizes in Venice. He is back with this ambitious personal drama set in 1970s Rome, which sees Penelope Cruz play the mother of two children one of whom is a 12-year-old named Adriana who wants to be a boy.

“Monica,” directed by Andrea Pallaoro.

Pallaoro, whose sophomore feature “Hannah,” starring Charlotte Rampling, won Venice’s Coppa Volpi for the best actress in 2017, is back with this English-language drama “Monica.” It stars transgender actor Trace Lysette (“Transparent”) as a woman who returns home to the Midwest to care for her dying mother, played by Patricia Clarkson.

“Chiara,” directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli.

This portrait of Saint Clare of Assisi, the 13th century saint born into a wealthy family who at age 18 became a nun after hearing St. Francis preach, completes her trilogy of fascinating female biopics, segueing from “Nico, 1988” and “Miss Marx,” which both launched from Venice’s Horizons section. “My Brilliant Friend” star Margherita Mazzucco is the titular Saint Clare. Andrea Carpenzano (“The Champion,” “Calcinculo”) also stars.

“Lord of the Ants,” directed by Gianni Amelio.

Amelio is best-known for the Oscar-nominated “Open Doors” (1990) and also “Stolen Children,” which won the 1992 Cannes Grand Prix, as well as “Hammamet,” a portrait of disgraced late Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi’s final years in Tunisia. The veteran auteur is back in Venice with this biopic of Italian poet, playwright and director Aldo Braibanti, who was jailed in 1968 due to a Fascist-era anti-gay law. Pic, which is produced by Marco Bellocchio, stars Luigi Lo Cascio (“The Ties”), Sara Serraiocco (“Counterpart”) and Elio Germano (“Hidden Away”) as Braibanti.

Venice Horizons opener

“Princess” by Roberto De Paolis.

This young Roman director whose 2017 debut “Pure Hearts” launched from Cannes, is following up with “Princess,” a naturalistic drama about a young African woman who is a victim of the sex trade.

Described by De Paolis as “the unfiltered story of a young Nigerian who prostitutes herself in Ostia, outside Rome, in a seaside pine forest,” “Princess” features Glory Kevin, a real victim of the sex trade, in the title role plus other non-professional actors with similar backgrounds. Rounding out the cast are Lino Musella (“The Young Pope”), Salvatore Striano (“Caesar Must Die”) and Maurizio Lombardi (“The New Pope”).

Out of Competition

“In viaggio” by Gianfranco Rosi.

Master documaker Rosi, whose “Sacro GRA” won the Venice Golden Lion in 2013, followed by 2016 Berlin Golden Bear-winner “Fire at Sea” and “Notturno” in 2020, is back with this shorter doc about Pope Francis’ travels, in which he has created a dialogue between archival footage and images that Rosi shot himself.

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