Sitting in his 16th century Borghese Palace residence in Rome, where statues line hallways leading to frescoed rooms, Italian film producer and former Senator Vittorio Cecchi Gori shows no sign that he is suffering from the latest and perhaps most severe setback in his attempts to revive his family’s film-making empire.
When a Rome court declared Cecchi Gori’s Finmavi holding group bankrupt in October, many saw the decision as the final nail in the coffin of the business started by Vittorio’s father Mario in 1949.
But 64-year-old Vittorio says he will not stop making movies, despite six years of financial difficulties that have put his production, exhibition and distribution outfits at risk.
As heir to one of Italy’s two most prominent filmmaking families (the other being the De Laurentiis clan) he bristles, then gazes quizzically at the suggestion that it might be time to turn the page. ‘I love to produce and I think I do it well,’ he says. ‘Cinema is my life. They will never take it away from me.’
Amongst Cecchi Gori’s credits are Life is Beautiful and Il Postino - two of only seven foreign-language films in Oscar history to also receive nominations for Best Picture. His family is also responsible for 350 other productions, including 1991’s Mediterraneo.
Today, life at Cecchi Gori’s home is far from dull. While the troubled producer speaks with Screen International, director Giuseppe Tornatore calls to schedule Oscar screenings (they are two of fourteen Italians eligible to vote for the Academy Awards); companion Mara Meis (1996’s Miss World Elegance and Miss Italy) relaxes in an adjoining room; his son, an assistant, a house keeper and a series of unidentified men in black suits all come and go while a small dog sits close to his master. In these settings, Vittorio Cecchi Gori hardly appears to be down on his luck.
But some vulnerability leaks out as he talks intensely about his financial woes, which date back roughly to 1995, defining himself as the target of a plot - he sees himself as a man who is being punished for his success.
Vittorio worked by his father’s side until Mario died in 1993. It is widely believed the son’s troubles began with his 1995 acquisition of private TV channel Telemontecarlo and the launch of the now-defunct satellite provider Stream (later re-launched by News Corp as Sky Italia).
He branched into television with the objective of creating a third channel in a market dominated by two network blocks: the state-operated RAI and Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset. The TV duopoly is a contentious issue in Italy, particularly when Berlusconi served (twice) as Premier. In those conditions, Berlusconi was in the anomalous position of holding influence over 95% of the nation’s television interests.
In 2001 Cecchi Gori sold Telemontecarlo to Telecom Italia and claims to have received only a down payment. Currently he has five active lawsuits against Telecom Italia.
‘I don’t believe that one businessman can do well and all the others badly,’ he says, apparently referring to Berlusconi. ‘Why did I go into television’ To have a major (studio); the American majors all have television [interests]. I wanted to have two television [outlets] that were supportive of cinema.’
The 1996 purchase of the Fiorentina football club became the other main source of Cecchi Gori’s difficulties.
His 1999 split from and settlement with wife and production partner Rita Rusic reportedly reached million dollar figures and, in 2001, the soccer club’s disastrous finances kept it out of Serie B - after which it ceased to exist.
Cecchi Gori has said his lowest point was 2001, when he was put under house arrest while being investigated for fraudulent bankruptcy resulting in the soccer club’s collapse. At that time he was alleged to have channeled $32 million away from his club towards his film production and distribution interests. He was cleared of those charges in 2004.
Famously vampish Italian starlet Valeria Marini was his high profile companion at that time. Although the five-year relationship ended in 2005, Marini stood by him during his hardest years. So, says Cecchi Gori, after surviving all of the above, the October bankruptcy is ‘minor’ in comparison. ‘The group has very strong assets,’ he explains. ‘But the most important thing is to come out right against Telecom and Fiorentina, but most of all Telecom.’
As for the October Finmavi bankruptcy sentence valued at Euro 60m, Cecchi Gori shakes his head. ‘It was totally unexpected. It was outside every expectation.’ Cecchi Gori’s lawyers had drafted a preventive agreement that assured repayment to creditors Merrill Lynch and Capitalia and the group says the creditors approved the plan.
Lawyer Maurizio Canfora told Screen his client’s assets are protected. ‘I don’t imagine a domino effect. Real estate, cinemas, other companies that refer to Cecchi Gori are not involved in this.’
Canfora is specifically referring to Cecchi Gori Cinema Spettacolo, and Cecchi Gori Entertainment, both of which are involved in distribution and production, as well as to the seven-theatre exhibition chain in Rome, Cecchi Gori Fine Arts Cinema in Los Angeles and private homes in Rome, Los Angeles and Miami.
But the 900-title Cecchi Gori library ’ could be captured and [an administrator] could choose to sell them to a third party,’ Canfora confirmed.
Cecchi Gori and Canfora have already appealed. ‘We hope that in the course of the year there will be a decision that will turn over and annul this sentence,’ said the lawyer.
Once his problems in Italy are settled - which may yet take some time - Cecchi Gori says he wants to spend some time in America. ‘I love Clint Eastwood,’ he says. ‘That is real ‘universal’ cinema, where people are moved, where the themes are modern, like old films but not old fashioned.’
Cecchi Gori has recently reconciled with his former wife Rita Rusic, and she will produce his next film with him. Titled Il Ballo Della Vittoria, it is based on Il Postino writer Antonio Skarmeta’s book of the same name and is scheduled to start shooting in Chile in April 2007 with Mediterraneo’s Fernando Trueba directing. Cecchi Gori keeps financing details vague but cites ‘Spanish Television and international financing through Cecchi Gori Cinema Spettacolo’.
Other projects are Scusa Se Ti Chiamo Amore, written and directed by Federico Moccia and set to shoot in March ‘07 as well as Vita da Gatti with Antonio Albanese as director.
When asked about the previously-announced biopic depicting his troubles, the spirited producer says: ‘Its better if someone else does it. I am not objective. I think it would take Clint Eastwood.’