Cecchi Gori forced into bankruptcy

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ROME -- After a long battle to remain afloat in the face of mounting financial difficulties, the holding company that controls Italy's troubled Cecchi Gori Group was declared bankrupt Tuesday, the latest bad news in a 10-year-long downward slide for what had been one of Italy's best-known film companies.

Group chairman Vittorio Cecchi Gori vowed to fight the decision and renewed his promise to help rebuild the fortunes of the company founded by his father, Mario Cecchi Gori, who died in 1993.

"I will fight with all my strength to expose the injustices I have been submitted to in these last years," Cecchi Gori said in a statement. "I may even die poor, but at least it will be as an honest and respectable person."

Cecchi Gori said the decision from the court was "unexpected and unexplainable" since the company was in the process of renegotiating terms with its major creditors. A spokesman for Merrill Lynch -- the Cecchi Gori Group's largest creditor -- would neither confirm nor deny those discussions.

The decision from the Rome-based bankruptcy court comes about a month after the court decided to re-open the case against holding company Finmavi S.p.A. The court date for Cecchi Gori's appeal has been set for Jan. 16.

For years, the Cecchi Gori Group was one of the dominant players in the Italian media and entertainment sector, with stakes in the television, film production, distribution and exhibition sectors. At its peak, it produced a dozen films a year, including such critically acclaimed blockbusters as 1994's "Il Postino" and "Life is Beautiful," which took home foreign-language Oscar in 1999.

But the company's fortunes began to slide after its Telemontecarlo network locked horns with state broadcaster RAI and Mediaset, the media giant controlled by former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi. Telemontecarlo never gained traction and in 2000 it was unloaded at a loss to former Italian telecommunications monopoly Telecom Italia, which re-branded the network La 7.

The group's mid-1990s acquisition of the A.C. Fiorentina soccer team also was problematic, with Vittorio Cecchi Gori at one time accused of illegally transferring money from the soccer club to Finmavi to help shore up the company's finances amid charges of corruption.

Over the last seven years, most of the company's assets -- including A.C. Fiorentina -- were unloaded, leaving it reduced to its core holdings in the film sector.

The company has so far retained its profitable network of Rome-based cinemas, but that may be in jeopardy in the wake of the bankruptcy decision.

The company has several films nearing completion, including documentary "Towards the Moon with Fellini" and adventure story "Il Sorpasso." The company also is about to begin production on the Spanish-language, Italo-Chilean joint venture "El Baile della Victoria" ("The Dance of Victory").
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