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Who Can Save Cinecittà? Legendary Italian Film Studio Risks Losing Its Soul

Protests are rising against plans to convert vast tracks of the sprawling Rome movie studios that were at the heart of La Dolce Vita, both in real life and on the big screen.

Cinecittà film studio: take 2 or curtain? (rauladefez)
Cinecittà film studio: take 2 or curtain? (rauladefez)
Philippe Ridet

ROME - What do you do with something of such legendary status? Preserve it exactly how it is, at the risk of it becoming a museum, or attempt to breathe some new life into it?

Seventy-five years after its creation by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who wanted something to rival the Hollywood "dream factories," the Cinecittà film studio on the outskirts of Rome is at the center of a new conflict. More than 200 employees are occupying the site to protest the studio's shareholders -- including Luigi Abete, president of the BNL, one of Italy's biggest banks in Italy.

On one side of the showdown, workers worried about losing their jobs (as decorators, joiners, sound technicians, dubbing and postproduction staff), who are denouncing "the break-up" and "asset-stripping" of the most famous studios in Europe. On the other side, shareholders who want to maximize their investments by transforming the studios on Via Tuscolana into a new and, in their eyes, more efficient enterprise.

Trade unions sneer at "the construction of supermarkets' on the studios' grounds, while managers speak of "reorganization" and "redevelopment." Negotiations are going around in circles.

To better understand the source of conflict, we should look back to 1997, when the studios and their grounds, once owned by the Italian State, were privatized and sold to four investors: Luigi Abete, Diego della Valle, Dino De Laurentiis and the Haggiag family. Back then, Cinecittà had already become but mere memories for cinema lovers: Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg romping in the streets in La Dolce Vita -- filmed in Studio 5, like most Federico Fellini films -- and Charlton Heston between takes on the set of Ben Hur, zipping around on his Vespa dressed in a Roman tunic.

A second life

The reality, however, is quite different. Television series and advertisements now call Cinecittà their home, while its film sets have been used as backdrops to ancient Rome, a Renaissance village or a shopping street. In 2000, Martin Scorsese's filming of Gangs of New York here seemed like a return to the golden age. Since then, however, few major movies have been filmed at Cinecittà. Despite its prestige, the fabricca dei sogni (dream factory) is suffering as a result of lower-cost filming in eastern Europe.

More than 100 major motion pictures are produced each year in Italy, but 90 percent of them are filmed elsewhere. "It's the film directors themselves that are ensuring the demise of Cinecittà by abandoning it," explains one studio manager.

The redevelopment plan led to an appeal, headed by director Ettore Scola, who has created a petition signed by numerous Italian and foreign directors (including Claude Lelouch, Michel Hazanavicius, Costa Gravas and Ken Loach), denouncing the "intolerable attack on culture" if it loses its cinematic soul.

"I find it almost touching. It proves that this place stays with you," said Emmanuel Gout, from France, who will be the chairman of the new theme park, Cinecittà World, which should open in 2014 on the grounds of the old De Laurentiis studios, not far from the Roman suburb of Ostia.

Luigi Abete will also oversee the plans for Cinecittà"s future that have proved so controversial: "Our intention is not to sell Cinecittà, but to make it more efficient," he says.

The shareholders are planning on building a hotel and a fitness center to offer more "amenities' for film crews. "Americans like to work out after a day of filming," one insider noted. Grouped into one single entity in the past, named simply Cinecittà Studios, different activities within the complex will now become independent companies "to have more flexibility and to maximize the technicians' skills."

One example is Cinecittà Allestimenti Tematici, a newly created company that will build new film sets for Cinecittà World. It was conceived by Dante Ferretti, Fellini's favorite set designer.

Finally, Cinecittà is hoping to enter the world of executive production, a project that has already gotten underway on a small scale with Woody Allen's new film, To Rome With Love. "Cultural heritage is a resource, not just a refuge for nostalgia," notes Gout. "Cinecittà is a fantastic brand that should be profitable."

That is precisely what is worrying those on strike in the studios, where a banner -- "Cinecittà Occupied" -- hangs over the entrance, itself a masterpiece of rationalist architecture. They fear their unique skills will no longer be in demand. At the end of the ongoing redevelopment, what will be the use of a set designer who is only capable of constructing Doric columns to look almost exactly like those of the Forum?

"This movement is absurd and reactionary," says Abete.

On the night of July 19, a fire started in studio 5, which Fellini had made his second home. Though not serious, is it a bad omen for Cinecittà"s future?

Read more from Le Monde in French

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