Universal Pictures will acquire a minority stake in leading Italian film production company Cattleya, and in a separate agreement, Focus Features International and Cattleya will partner to develop, co-produce and distribute Cattleya films the companies announced today.

The deal with Cattleya is the first time a major U.S. studio has invested directly in a local production company in Italy.

Rome-based Cattleya was founded and is co-owned by Riccardo Tozzi (president), Giovanni Stabilini (CEO) and Marco Chimenz (executive vice president) while Cattleya's head of development Francesca Longardi recently became a partner in the company.

Currently producing between four and six films per year, Cattleya's recent successes include: 2008's Donatello award-winningMy BrotherIs An Only Child(Mio Fratello È Figlio Unico) directed by Daniele Luchetti; the 2006 winning and internationally acclaimed Crime Novel (Romanzo Criminale); and the 2005, Oscar-nominated, Don't Tell(La Bestia Nel Cuore) directed by Cristina Comencini.

Welcoming the deal, Riccardo Tozzi said: 'We are thrilled to be partnering with Universal Pictures, one of the most globally minded studios, with a first-class distribution operation in Italy, and with the team at Focus Features International. Their enthusiasm for Cattleya affirms our strategy of working with the best talent to make quality, mainstream films.'

Focus Features International recently joined operations with Universal's international production group to be better placed to offer local filmmakers the benefits of a global approach.

Focus Features International co-CEO Christian Grass and senior vice president Clare Wise, who have been spearheading the effort through Universal's international production group, will manage the relationship with Cattleya in their new roles.

AsGrass explained to ScreenDaily, the deal means not only the opportunity to work closely with one of Italy's leading film companies but also to bring something to the table:

'This is a win-win situation, where we can bring together local expertise and access to the international market. Local expertise in terms of Cattleya's local production and UPI's local distribution; and an international perspective in terms of potentially selling international rights on certain projects, providing opportunities for local talent to get international exposure, as well as remake possibilities.' Grass said.

The Universal/Cattleya production pact is one of a number of slate deals for Focus Features International around the world that includes agreements with: Fernando Mereilles and 02 Filmes; Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro's Cha Cha Cha; and Russian director/producer Timur Bekmambetov and his Moscow-based company Bazelevs Production.

Universal's co-chairman David Linde underlined the importance of pursuing an international approach to filmmaking:

'Succeeding in an ever-growing global economy means making strategic alliances with the best filmmakers around the world and with Cattleya as our partner we are able to further that goal,' said Linde.

As Grass explains, the approach has obvious commercial advantages:

'Aligning yourself with a leading filmmaker/production company in a local market really focuses your efforts there and brings you closer to the goal of being able to make commercial films in those markets. It's a very efficient and strategic way of truly being in the international business.' Grass said.

Under the new partnership, Universal and Cattleya have also signed a separate deal where Universal either handles Italian theatrical and home entertainment distribution on Cattleya titles financed by Cattleya or alternatively, they co-produce pictures together.

Focus Features International's sales arm also has a first option to handle international distribution on all future Cattleya films.

All the titles will be distributed in Italy via UPI Italy, headed by managing director Richard Borg and his team with a minimum of eight films expected to flow through the agreement over the next four years.

The first film to be released under the new Universal/Cattleya deal will be Diverso Da Chi, directed by Umberto Riccioni Carteni, starring Luca Argentero, Claudia Gerini and Filippo Nigro to be released March 20.

In addition, the companies have agreed to co-produce the upcoming Meno Male Che Ci Sei, directed by Luis Prieto and starring Claudia Gerini and Chiara Martegiani, which is currently in production.

Other films produced by Cattleya include Franco Zeffirelli's Tea With Mussolini, Gabriele Salvatores' I'm Not Scared (Io Non Ho Paura) and Paolo Virzi's Caterina Va In Città (Caterina In The Big City).

While Cattleya and Universal Pictures International (UPI) previously partnered on the Italian release Lezioni Di Cioccolato (Lessons In Chocolate) by Claudio Cupellini.