Cinecittà, the Italian film studio located on 99 acres less than 6 miles from the center of Rome, is as rich in cinema history as Hollywood’s backlots of Paramount, MGM and Warner Brothers. It is where Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn zipped around the city on a Vespa in “Roman Holiday” (1953). It is where Charlton Heston raced in a chariot in “Ben-Hur” (1959) on the single largest set (18 acres) ever built for a movie. It is where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton ignited a tabloid frenzy with their off-screen affair during the filming of “Cleopatra” (1963). It is where Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Eckberg frolicked in the Trevi Fountain (a foam replica) in “La Dolce Vita” (1960). And because of all this, it is where the term “paparazzi” was coined. It came from a fictional news photographer named Paparazzo in “La Dolce Vita.”
The origins of Cinecittà date back to the 1930s when Benito Mussolini not only wanted to revive the languishing Italian film industry, but also wanted to create what Hitler had developed—a propaganda machine. Mussolini sent his son Vittorio to Hollywood to learn about America’s dream factories and to replicate them in Rome. Cinecittà was built in a year and a half—an architectural fusion of art deco from Hollywood and Fascist-era minimalism. It is said that more than 100,000 pre-war news reels are stored within the studio’s vaults, including Mussolini’s declaration of war on the allies. Between 1937 and 1943, 279 films were made, some of which showcased the technological advances of the studios. Others were known as “white telephone” films because they featured ritzy settings and posh lifestyles that few Italians experienced in their daily existence.
During World War II, Cinecittà was bombed by the Allies and looted by the Nazis. By 1944, film production stopped, and the studios were used as a refugee camp. America closed down Cinecittà in 1945 forbidding films to be made there as a punishment for Italy’s alliance with the Nazis during the war. The irony of the ban was that it gave rise to Neorealism, as filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica took to the streets to make films like “Rome, Open City” and “The Bicycle Thief.” In these classic films, Hollywood standards were eschewed, amateur actors were used, and scenes were shot in authentic locations. Critical acclaim for these films not only drew attention to the Italian film industry, but also elevated Cinecittà as an alternative for Hollywood producers seeking to lower production costs.
By the 1950s Cinecittà was back in business and established a great reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. It was and still is the largest film studio in Europe, and directors flocked to “Hollywood on the Tiber,” as it was known during the glory years of the ‘50s and ‘60s. For Italian films, “La Dolce Vita” was seen as a bridge between Neorealism and Modern Art films. For the rest of his life, Federico Fellini made nearly all his movies on Stage 5, the largest soundstage in Europe.
After Fellini’s death in 1993, Cinecittà began to languish. The Italian government privatized it in 1997, selling an 80% stake. Investments have made Cinecittà a cinema capital once again. Since the 1990s, films produced there have included “The English Patient,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Passion of Christ” and “The Two Popes.” However, competition always looms on the horizon; other studios offer state-of-the-art facilities and tax breaks to lower production costs. Cinecittà, however, is the only studio in the world with pre-production, production, and full post-production on one lot. Thus, one can walk in with a script and walk out with a completed movie.
Over its lifetime, more than 3,000 movies have been filmed at Cinecittà, of which 90 received an Academy Award nomination and 47 of these won. While the future for Cinecittà remains uncertain, there will always be “la dolce vita” days of the ‘50s and ‘60s and the splendors of the past.