US studios see opportunity in local-language film. Sheri Jennings reports.

The importance of the US studios to local-language film has been growing steadily for some years now. But it now seems clear that tentative steps are becoming big strides.

Italy provides a good illustration with two films from the Rome-based Cattleya production outfit shooting with Hollywood players on board.

Comedy Lezioni Di Cioccolato will be Universal Italy's first foray into distributing a local film. The project, to be directed by Claudio Cupellini and star Violante Placido, is set for a late November 2007 release, when local comedies traditionally take a big slice of the Italian box office.

Universal's Italian chief Richard Borg told Screen the venture with Cattleya is being considered 'a first approach to what could be a long-term deal. We think they are the right partners to work with in the future.' He said the studio liked the project, and that helped get the ball rolling.

While Universal has not made any formal announcements, their intention is to become involved in local production, not just distribution.

'Universal is interested in getting involved in local production and we are aiming at two to three productions or co-productions a year starting in 2008,' Borg confirmed. The company will focus on quality films and commercial products.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros Italia has been active in local productions since 2002 with a consistent slate of three to four titles per year, including Cannes selection My Brother Is An Only Child and the acclaimed Crime Novel.

Warner is involved in Cattleya's project Amore, Bugie E Calcetto, which begins shooting in the northern city of Trieste this month. A story of 'love and betrayal', the film is likely to have strong commercial appeal for Italians.

The continued interest from the US majors comes at a time when Italian home-grown films have captured 34.7% of the total box office in the first five months of 2007.

The interest in local film is not a retreat from wider international ambitions. Involvement in production helps the studios tap into a wider range of talent, and local box office offers a live testing ground for potential global hits.

As Universal co-chairman David Linde told Screen's European Film Finance conference earlier this year: 'We don't believe in pigeon-holing opportunities. Local audiences are embracing local stories but many of those stories go on to sustained success beyond their territorial borders.'

The point was illustrated at Cannes this year, where Universal and Focus Features International (FFI) announced a $100m partnership with Mexican film-makers Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to form production partnership cha cha cha.

Under the terms of the deal, the three will maintain creative control over their films, allowing them to develop and produce independently with the benefit of worldwide studio distribution.

Universal will invest in and co-own all cha cha cha features with the film-makers. FFI will handle international sales while North American distribution will be determined as appropriate on each picture.

Other studios are pursuing similar strategies, making Screen's international chart on this page increasingly important.