Stage is set for Italian row

Milan studio could rival Cinecitta

A €305 million ($420.9 million) plan to convert a former tobacco plant in Milan into Italy's latest film studio was unveiled Wednesday, and the 893,000-square-foot facility could host its first film as soon as next year.

Efforts to develop a Milan-based studio to compete with Rome's Cinecitta Studios have been discussed for years. But Pirelli Real Estate's announcement that it will begin the process of rezoning the former Manifattura Tabacchi facilities is the most concrete evidence yet that the plan has traction.

The Milan project — which involves 28 partners, including U.S.-based global real estate hedge fund RREEF Global Opportunities Fund II and Germany's Deutsche Bank — comes as Cinecitta and other established studios in Western Europe are finding themselves caught in a crunch between more technologically advanced studios in the U.S. and less expensive rivals in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

Plans for the as-yet-unnamed studios are ambitious, with 580,000 square feet of private space and another 313,000 square feet open to the public. The property is reportedly worth an estimated €47 million ($64.9 million), with another €258 million ($356 million) guaranteed by the partners as development funding.

The plan is controversial, as any new Italian studio will no doubt put additional pressure on the legendary Cinecitta, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.

The new studio plan also is playing on the traditional rivalry between Italy's wealthy northern regions and the slower-paced southern regions along with central parts of the country, where the capital and Cinecitta are located.

Umberto Bossi — a former government minister under Silvio Berlusconi and founder of the Northern League, a political party that proposes separating northern Italy into a separate country called Padania — made an unscheduled visit to the Locarno Film Festival last week and hinted that the Milan studios could be the end of Cinecitta.

Acknowledging that Rome has the upper hand compared to Milan in terms of film production, Bossi vowed that wouldn't be the case for long.

"Even in the world of cinema, we will beat Rome," Bossi vowed during a press briefing here. "The first film made in Milan's Cinecitta next year will be about the Battle of Legnano," he said, referring to a 12th-century fight in which the Milan-based Lombard League gained its independence by defeating the pope's armies from Rome.