Past the monumental entrance of Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, enormous screens tower over what is normally the movie studio’s front lawn, enclosing a sizable — and off-limits — backlot for the filmmaker Luca Guadagnino’s “Queer,” starring Daniel Craig.
Studio 5, a stage beloved by Federico Fellini, has been reconfigured into a series of medieval rooms and courtyards for a Netflix adaptation of Boccaccio’s “Decameron.” Not far away, the British director Joe Wright has commandeered five studios for the eight-episode series “M: Son of the Century,” based on Antonio Scurati’s best-selling novel about Benito Mussolini’s early years.
And, on a recent morning, crew workers scampered up scaffolding to tighten bolts and run cables on an enormous set, originally built for HBO’s “Rome,” soon to backdrop “Those About to Die,” Roland Emmerich’s gladiator series starring Anthony Hopkins.
After decades of alternating fortunes, Rome’s fabled studios — pronounced Chi-neh-chi-TAH — appear to be reliving a glittering moment akin to the 1950s and 1960s, when American and British stars and directors flocked to Rome, and the grand, hotel-lined Via Veneto in the city center was a lively haunt for celebrity-hunting paparazzi. Then, Cinecittà was known as “Hollywood on the Tiber.” Along with many classics of Italian neorealism and the spaghetti western genre, sword-and-sandal flicks like “Ben Hur,” “Quo Vadis” and “Cleopatra” were made there, as well as “Roman Holiday” and “The Pink Panther.”
In the past two years, “we’ve passed from 30 percent occupancy to 100 percent occupancy,” said Nicola Maccanico, Cinecittà’s chief executive. To clinch fresh deals, it was enough, he added, to modernize the facilities and promote its crews of highly skilled artisans, flaunt its location in one of the world’s most beautiful and historic cities, and plug Italy’s generous tax incentives to foreign productions.
His challenge, he said, was to keep the productions coming.
Maccanico became chief executive two years ago: a particularly fortuitous moment, coinciding with a sharp increase in demand for new content propelled by streaming services.
But he knows that to stay competitive in a niche market with contenders like Studio Babelsberg, near Berlin, or Pinewood Studios, just outside London, Cinecittà must continually invest in itself and its services. And grow.
Founded in 1937 by Mussolini to promote Italian cinema and, in part, make Fascist propaganda films, Cinecittà is introducing a major makeover using European Union pandemic recovery funds.
Four existing soundstages will be refurbished, and five more are scheduled to be built by 2026. One soundstage has already been outfitted with a gigantic high-tech LED wall that allows virtual effects to be added during production. The soundstage was occupied on a recent afternoon by a crew shooting a scene from the Mussolini series, colorful abstract patterns in pale pinks and blues dancing across the screen. During that set visit, Wright enigmatically described the aesthetic of the series as “quite outlandish” and “quite kaleidoscopic.”
Maccanico said that virtual effects technology vastly expanded Cinecittà’s moviemaking potential, making sustainable “narrative developments that would have been impossible before because of budgetary limitations.”
Italy’s 40 percent tax rebate on production costs for international films and television series has also been a strong drawing card.
In its 90-year history, the studio has had its share of lows, as well as highs. At one point, it was used mostly for Italian televisions series. (Only the set for Italy’s “Big Brother,” which first went on the air in 2000, is still operational.) Even through the lean times, Cinecittà maintained artisans on staff including carpenters, welders and set painters.
On a recent morning, Paolo Perugini, the foreman of Cinecittà’s carpentry workshop, was fiddling with a computer connected to an industrial saw cutting dozens of identical panels that — once painted — would be used on a set for a kung fu film (still a hush-hush project).
His carpentry team was at work on three productions, he said, but had worked on as many as eight at once in recent years. Work had picked up considerably since the coronavirus pandemic began to wane, he said. “We never stop,” he said. “Luckily.”
Last year, Cinecittà signed a five-year deal with the production group Fremantle for the continual rental of six soundstages at the site. (They are now occupied by Wright’s “M” and Guadagnino’s “Queer.”)
Maccanico said he was looking to develop similar partnerships with “independent producers, streaming services or — why not? — other studios,” adding, “That’s why growth is important, because it allows us to go in this direction.”
The second phase of Maccanico’s growth plan involves a deal with a state-controlled group to buy a 75-acre plot of land not far from the original studios. Development of that site will also draw on some of the 262 million euro from the European Union grant to make the studios more attractive to major productions.
That so many major productions are already in Rome has already given a boost to locals and companies that make movies. “It’s been a positive driving force,” Maccanico said. “The only thing we can’t do is make Via Veneto take off again,” he added, “because actors don’t behave like they used to.”