ROME: The giant sets of the Cinecitta studios in Rome — from 19th century New York to Renaissance Florence — are a slice of world cinema history that workers picketing outside say is disappearing forever.
The iconic 1930s facade has been covered by a giant banner reading “Occupy Cinecitta” and international directors including Britain’s Ken Loach and France’s Claude Lelouch are getting behind a campaign to preserve the site.
The bone of contention is a modernisation plan that would increase the use of sub-contractors, split up the studios and build a hotel for visiting crews which management says will restore Cinecitta as an international hub.
The studio’s 220 staff oppose th eplan which they say will sideline sound engineers, set builders and costume designers with decades of experience who have worked with the likes of Federico Fellini and Martin Scorsese.
“This is a piece of Italy that is falling apart. They’re using the economic crisis for their own interests,” said Roberto Casula, 53, a sound technician who has worked here for 28 years, as he sold T-shirts at the picket line.
The protesters, who have been living in tents outside the building for the past three weeks, say they will stay until management shelves the redevelopment scheme and trade union leaders are drumming up support among Italian politicians.
Work in the 40-hectare (99-acre) site meanwhile continues despite the protest.
Dozens of extras, dressed in rags, from the US TV series “The Borgias”starring Jeremy Irons could be seen munching down sandwiches and smoking in the
shade during a pause in filming in one corner, next to a set of ancient Rome.
On another set, the street of an Italian town, crew members swarmed around cheering actors in a party scene for the popular soap opera “A Doctor in the Family” which has been filmed in Cinecitta for the past 14 years.
Cinecitta was built in 1937 on the orders of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to rival the big Hollywood studios of the day and reached its golden age in the 1960s and 1970s with blockbusters like Ben Hur and Cleopatra.
The area has retained much of its original appearance and traditional artisanal methods, which managers say are becoming increasingly outdated.
The cinema and television work for the studios has plunged in recent years.
Set builder Francesco Mancini, 49, started out in 1984 working with Fellini as one of a team of 45 people. Now he is one of six and is called to do jobs such as shopping malls and theme parks that have nothing to do with cinema.
“I trained with someone who was older than me but now there is no one who will follow me. There’s no one else who will do this work,” Mancini said.
He said his bosses want to focus on the non-film work and are planning to move him to another town outside Rome with little in the way of job security.
“Cinecitta should pursue its vocation. We think they are just trying to kick us out,” said Mancini, who earns around 1,100 euros ($1,340) a month.
The head of Cinecitta Studios, Luigi Abete, who is also the chairman of BNL bank, has responded to the criticism in recent days saying the claims being made by trade unions about his modernisation plan are “absolutely false.””
In order to be on the market and attract international productions, we have to expand our services like other studios,” said Abete, who bought the studios when they were privatised in the 1990s and opened an on-site museum last year.
“Either we keep up with the outside world or we entrench ourselves in a world while everything outside changes and we really risk shutting down.
“The position of the unions is absurd, it shows backwardness,” he said.
But the protesters fear that under the banner of change the studios will be turned into little more than a tourist attraction while key aspects of production will be handled by external companies with little or no experience.
The Italian film directors’ association has sent an open letter to President Giorgio Napolitano signed by top international directors in which it praises “the extraordinary professionalism” of the traditional set artisans.
It said the new plan would “cementify” Cinecitta and dismantle its cinematographic soul and asked the Italy’s government to intervene and ensure that Cinecitta “becomes once again a reference point for world cinema.”Roberto Cappannelli, a 47-year-old sound engineer who joined in 1988 after graduating from the Istituto Rossellini film school in Rome, said he felt “an incredible emotion” when he entered the studio gates for the first time.
“It’s like a family here. I’ve grown up in these studios,” he said.
“We’re defending our jobs but we’re also defending a piece of Italian heritage. We need to save it for Italy and for cinema lovers around the world.”