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Cinecitta seeks to reclaim its glory

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CANNES -- Now in its 70th year, Italy's Cinecitta is reinventing itself.� The studio -- whose name means "Cinema City" in Italian -- has one of the most storied histories in the business, with a resume that includes 1950s epic classics such as "Ben Hur" and "Cleopatra."

The studio is celebrating its anniversary Tuesday in Cannes with a gala that will include iconic Italian directors Ermanno Olmi and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. But the festivities will take place at a time when most agree that the studio battles to remain relevant.

Many Cinecitta advocates use a similar argument to defend the studio that European winemakers use to deflect the rise of quality in California, Australia, and elsewhere: terroir. No place else, they say, can offer the history and tradition of Cinecitta.

But as more parts of the world develop facilities that can make films cheaper than Cinecitta can, with bigger soundstages and more modern equipment, that argument becomes harder to make.

The number of projects produced by the studio dropped from a high of about 230 per year in the early 1970s, to about 80 today.

But Italian industry insiders say the studio can still be important.

"Cinecitta cannot compete on cost alone," said Tullio Kezich, the dean of Italy's cinema press corps, who started out his career covering the Venice Film Festival in 1946, when Cinecitta was only nine years old. "But there is more to it than cost. If three workmen come to your house and say they can do a certain job for 10 euros, or 50, or 100, you know you will not get the same level of work for 10 that you will get for 100. That is the argument Cinecitta has to make: quality."

Which is exactly what Cinecitta has in mind. According to the studio's general manager, Lamberto Mancini, Cinecitta is spending money to make money.

In recent years, the studio has expanded from its main location just outside Rome's center to operate three more studios, two in Italy and a third in Morocco. All told, it now operates 30 soundstages and five back lots, with plans for more on the way. Cinecitta also is one of the few major studios to boast a complete postproduction lab.

"Counting all the locations, we are the biggest film center in Europe," Mancini said. "From start to finish, we can do almost anything a filmmaker needs us to do."

Earlier this month the studio held a massive briefing on its back lot to announce plans to unveil a new set of film awards for behind-the-scenes personnel involved in film production. Cineciitta's production company, Instituto Luce, said it was changing its focus to works from young directors, and the studio also said it would actively shop rights to its vast film archive at markets like AFM, Cannes and Rome -- all initiatives aimed at attracting attention and increasing efficiency during its anniversary year. The local media applauded the moves.

But many players cautioned against expecting too much from the plans.

"I don't think Cinecitta will ever be what it once was," said one European filmmaker who has produced projects at Cinecitta, but who now works mostly in Eastern Europe. "I think it can find its niche, and there's no doubt that it has a wonderful history. But the glory days are past. It's a different world now."

Aldo Tassone, an Italian author and former Cannes jury member, agreed. "The Italian film industry has been showing new signs of life in recent years, but this will have only a limited effect on Cinecitta," Tassone said. "Of course, it is a great day when Martin Scorsese makes a film at Cinecitta (as he did with "Gangs of New York"), but "Ben Hur" was a completely different level."