Italians can have cinema their way

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ROME -- SelfCinema, an innovative project to let audiences decide which films they'll see, is increasing the level of people power in Italy's theater programming business.

Organized by a small group of writers, producers, directors and exhibitors eager to see smaller, quality films shown in local cinemas, SelfCinema is based on the premise that if enough people buy advance tickets for a given movie, theaters will screen it. Tickets are sold in book stores, tobacco shops and online.

The scheme is starting small, promoting a single film -- "L'Estate di Mio Fratello" (My Brother's Summer), a 2005 drama from Pietro Reggiani that screened at the Tribeca Film Festival but never found a distributor in Italy. The film will premiere in six Italian cities next month. The initial response has been good, with more than 2,000 tickets pre-sold. Organizers expect to sell about 5,000 tickets by the time cinema doors swing open.

"There is a high enough level of interest that it removes the risk for cinema owners," says producer Antonio Ciano, one of SelfCinema's organizers. "This is a simple initiative that will get more quality films in the public eye."

All told, Ciano says a half-dozen copies of the film will be screened in up to 40 Italian cities over a period of a few months. Though that won't ever be enough to place a film among Italy's top-grossing offerings, it should, in theory, help small- and medium-budget productions cover their costs and perhaps turn a small profit. And most importantly, organizers say, it will increase the variety of films available to the public.

"This combats the trend we are seeing in which the same handful of films are shown in every city in every country around the world," says Marco Lodoli, a writer and another SelfCinema organizer.

Eventually, SelfCinema will adopt five or six films a year, though the extent to which they get distributed will depend on how many tickets are sold. Organizers are even figuring out ways to get the general public to participate in the process that decides which films are chosen for promotion. "Part of the innovation is in the democracy of the process," Ciano says.

While the project is not striking fear into the hearts of the country's established distributors, some are taking notice. And while the official word is that they support efforts to increase the number of films in distribution, behind closed doors some are skeptical: "It's difficult to make a profit with so few copies of a film," said one distributor. "And remember that we're all looking for good films. If a film fails to find a distributor, there's usually a reason."

But SelfCinema's advocates remain undeterred. Gaetano Renda, a Turin-based cinema owner planning to screen "L'Estate di Mio Fratello," says it is the duty of cinema owners to seek out new product.

"There has to be more than one way for a film to get presented to the public, and SelfCinema represents another option," Renda says.
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