The Charming Story of Cinecittà Studios in Rome

| Wed, 02/08/2012 - 09:00

5.6 miles to the south-west of Rome, hidden among the quiet suburbs, and just a stone’s throw away from the famous Appian Way, lies Cinecittà Studios: Europe’s Dream Factory. It is the largest film and movie studio in continental Europe, covering and area of 99 acres, and with a production community of 5.000 multilingual specialists it certainly lives up to its name, Cinecittà, which literally translates to “Cinema City.”

Cinecittà Studios were founded by Benito Mussolini in 1937 to be used for propaganda films in the promotion of fascism. More than 100,000 pre-war news reels are said to be stored within the studio’s vaults: including Mussolini’s declaration of war on the allied forces. In January 1945, with Germans scarcely across the Alpes, Roberto Rossellini started work on his classic war movie: Rome Città Aperta (open city). It has since been described as a classic piece of Italian Neorealism, in which the Hollywood standards are rejected, amateur actors are used where possible, and authentic locations are used for outdoors scenes. This would not only have been easily achieved, but also impossible to avoid among the war torn streets of post-war Rome. The film, shot on a grainy news-reel style, won several awards including: the Grand Prize at Cannes Film Festival (1946) and the New York Film Critics Award for best foreign film (1946). Not only did this draw attention to the Italian film industry, but also to Cinecittà Studios as a viable alternative for Hollywood producers looking to cut production costs.

By the end of the 1950s with string of hit movies behind it, including Helen of Troy (1959), Cinecittà had established a fine reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1957 Hollywood would, again, come calling. This time it was director William Wyler accompanied by “a cast of thousands”, and Charlton Heston, who came to shoot the MGM classic Ben-Hur. This was no ordinary movie: it would use more than 300 sets, 10,000 extras and more than 100,000 costumes. Its budget exceeded $15 million and it even had its own artificial lake built right in the Cinecittà back-lot, for use during the many galleon scenes. But the scene that is most fondly remembered is the famous Chariot race between Ben-Hur and Messala. It costed $1 million dollars to build the set, and required more than 1500 extras just for that one scene alone. By the time the set was built it covered more than 18 acres and was the largest single set to have ever been built for a movie. On its release in November 1959 it was a runaway success. and went on to earn more than $90 million at the box office and save MGM from financial disaster. To this day Ben-Hur stands as a triumph of cinematography and the jewel in the crown of Cinecittà Studios.

Foto Pantheon

In 1963 another epic Hollywood production followed; this time it was the turn of the movie that almost bankrupt 20th Century Fox: Cleopatra. For despite lavishly designed sets and a forever increasing budget, Cleopatra is remembered more for the off-screen romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor than for anything else. The off screen extramarital affair of these two stars caused public outrage.

R.Burton & E.Taylor from Cleopatra
R. Burton & E. Taylor from Cleopatra

More recently, in 2001 Martin Scorsese brought his “Gangs of New York” to Rome and in 2005 the HBO-BBC joint production “Rome” followed. Despite the onslaught of directors from across the Atlantic and Britain, Italian bread cinema was not forgotten. Legendary Rimini born Film Director Federico Fellini got his first writing credit on Mario Mattoli’s comedy Il Pirata Sono Io ( The Pirate’s Dream) in early 1940, while not yet twenty years old. His most revered work La Dolce Vita is seen as the bridge between Neorealism and Modern Art films: classic Italian cinema meets Andy Warhol beneath the Trevi fountain.

The movie broke box office records, but was condemned by the Vatican for its scenes of sex and drugs, and also for its “questionable moral standing”. Despite this, it made more than $19 million at the box office and become Fellini’s most financially successful film.

Federico Fellini continued his love affair with Cinecittà for the rest of his life; famously calling it “my idea world, the cosmic space before the big bang”. And indeed, its rich and beautiful history cannot be denied; Audrey Hepburn honeymooned here, Ursula Andress' career started here and the largest ever “prop” in cinema history, the 40ft Trojan Horse for Helen of Troy, was also built here. But ghosts alone cannot keep a business running. And, after all, beneath the magic, the dreams, the myths and legends, Cinecittà is about business. This means that the studios have to find the right way to transit the charming movie studios of the old times into the 21st century, turning into a multi-purpose complex that can “ride-out” Italy’s ever deepening financial crisis.

Threats from the east, particularly from the newly built Korda Studios on the outskirts of Budapest, are causing some real concerns in Italy. Not only can Korda offer “state of the art” facilities, but with the incentive of some great tax breaks can also offer production at almost a third of the cost. Nevertheless, Cinecittà can count on the fact that it is still the “only studio in the world with pre-production, production and full post-production on one lot”. This literally means that you can walk in with a script and out with a completed movie. This may mean a lot to smaller local budget films, but with the digital age well upon us, and the ever expanding Korda, will this be enough to entice the big guns? Walking through Cinecittà Studios today is a fantastic experience as you can still feel the magic of the great old times. And as with all great movies there could still be a twist in the tale.

Corso Decaduto

An $800 million Cinecittà World theme park was announced in November 2009 to be in development and hopes to capitalise on past glories. However, the future still remains uncertain for Cinecittà. If it can reinvent itself then maybe it can find its way back to its golden days of the 1950s and 60s, but whatever the future holds, Cinecittà will always have the splendours of its past. And so will we.