Roberto Benigni's hugely anticipated next picture, Pinocchio, will not be released in Italy until Christmas 2002, a spokesman for the Cecchi Gori Group confirmed on Wednesday (Nov 7).

The film had originally been set for release later this year, which would have placed it somewhere between the two blockbuster heavyweights Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, due out on December 6, and Lord Of The Rings, which will be released on January 18.

Cecchi Gori said the film's release had been postponed until the end of 2002 because shooting had started a few weeks late and has slightly overrun. Principal photography started in June 2001, and post-production on the special effects-heavy movie is taking place in the US.

A spokesman for Roberto Benigni's Melampo Cinematografica was not immediately available for comment.

The picture's delayed release is a significant setback for the Cecchi Gori Group, its beleaguered local distributor which badly needs the cash injection the hugely popular Benigni could provide. In the latest demonstration of the Tuscan comic's popularity, the TV premiere of his1997 hit, Life Is Beautiful, broke all previous TV audience records when it aired on RAIUNO last month, tallying a massive 16 million viewers, equivalent to a 54% share.

Pinocchio stars Roberto Benigni in the title role, and his wife and Life is Beautiful co-star, Nicoletta Braschi, plays the Blue Fairy. The film is produced by Elda Ferri and Gianluigi Braschi for Melampo Cinematografica.

Written by Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami, the picture's team include Oscar-winning production designer Danilo Donati, composer Nicola Piovani (Life is Beautiful, The Son's Room), and cinematographer Dante Spinotti (The Insider, Wonder Boys).

The film will be distributed worldwide by Miramax.

Meanwhile, in a further sign of Cecchi Gori's cash emergency, Medusa spokesman Claudio Trionfera confirmed that the leading Rome distributor is in advanced negotiations to pick up three films Cecchi Gori was due to release imminently. These are Giovannni Veronesi's Streghe Verso Nord, scheduled to be released at the end of next week (November 16), Marco Bechis's Figli-Hijos, which screened at the Venice Film Festival in September, and record-breaking comic Leonardo Pieraccioni's Il Principe e il Pirata - which was widely expected to put some cash back into the Cecchi Gori war chest.

Trionfera said negotiations did not cover Enzo d'Alo's animation feature, Momo, which Cecchi Gori will release this Christmas, nor Michael Mann's boxing picture Ali.

Cecchi Gori was not immediately available to comment.