MIPCOM Diary 2: Documenting a Diva

Project: Looking for Sophia Description: An homage to Italian actress Sophia Loren on the occasion of her 70th birthday, highlighting her film accomplishments and celebrating her as a woman, a mother and ...
October 1, 2004

Project: Looking for Sophia

Description: An homage to Italian actress Sophia Loren
on the occasion of her 70th birthday, highlighting her film accomplishments and celebrating her as a woman, a mother and a wife.

Exec producers: Laura and Silvia Pettini, Felix Film (Italy)

Associate producers: Surf Films (Italy)

Writer/director: Roberto Olla (Italy)

Copro partners: Felix Film, Rai Trade (Italy), ZDF/ARTE (Germany/France), AVRO (The Netherlands), with the participation of Rai Uno

Distributor: Rai Trade

Budget: E390,000 (US$478,000)

At an age when most people are playing shuffleboard and wondering when the grandkids will stop by, Sophia Loren is still making movies. Born in 1934, the Italian siren first graced the screen with bit parts in 1950. Her latest production, La Casa dei gerani, is currently in post – a fitting present for her 70th birthday in September.

With a career that stretches over six decades and a private life as dramatic as her roles, it’s only natural the industry would want to do something nice for Loren’s 70th. Rai Trade was thinking about such a tribute early in the millennium, but the project never seemed to come together. Observes sales and marketing manager Andrea Portante, with the global production market up and down, ‘people didn’t really have a long-term horizon. When we were discussing [it], it was like: Who knows where we are going to be in 2004!’

Discouraged by the lack of progress, Portante held out little hope for a new Loren project. However, his coworker, international sales exec Alessandra Sottile, continued to champion it. At an informal gathering at the Rai Trade Screenings in Portofino in 2001, Sottile and Portante met with Olaf Grunert, head of thematic evenings at ZDF/ARTE, and Marijke Rawie, head of arts and docs at AVRO in The Netherlands, and Loren came up again. As Rawie puts it, they all agreed a tribute to ‘the last real European film diva’ was in order, but as an Italian actress working in the Italian cinema, it was best an Italian broadcaster spearhead the project.

February 2002: Sottile, Grunert and Rawie reunite at the RealScreen Summit in 2002 and Loren resurfaces. Sottile is discouraged because the actress has declined to participate – how many former sex symbols want to publicly celebrate their 70th birthday? But Grunert isn’t put off. ‘I said, ‘That’s a pity,” he notes, ‘but I have done portraits of people who are dead…Let’s try to pay homage to an absent diva.’

The partners decide the doc can use an iconographic approach – using pictures, historical interviews and new cameos from colleagues. But the project is still ephemeral. Grunert and Rawie leave it to Rai Trade to see if it can go forward.

September 2003: Sottile approaches Rome-based prodco Felix Film principles Laura and Silvia Pettini to see if they are interested in the project. Rai Trade had previously distributed some of the company’s films, and because Felix had done a lot on Italian cinema, they know what archive footage is available and which interviews might be secured. Felix is also in the works with its own Loren doc. With less than a year to deliver, the prodco signs on.

November 2003: AVRO, ZDF/ARTE and Rai Trade meet again at the pre-IDFA EBU Documentary Group meeting in Amsterdam. The non-Italian partners want to know where the project stands and if they should be making other plans – zdf/arte has already decided on a Sophia Loren theme night in time for her birthday and has licensed a Loren feature. Felix and Sottile essentially re-pitch the project to Rawie and Grunert as a E450,000 (US$552,000) film written and directed by RAI news/current affairs journalist Roberto Olla.

The meeting doesn’t go as well as Sottile hoped. AVRO and ZDF/ARTE think the budget is high and wonder if Felix will be able to manage all the required copro duties. Before the broadcasters will confirm their participation, Felix has to put together a more developed pitch with possible interviews, a list of available films (for which Felix could land worldwide rights clearance for at least 10 years), and a revised budget.

The partners also want RAI involved, and not just for the money. Says Grunert, ‘There was no Italian CE at this point. If you want to do [a project] with Italy, it is worthwhile to have someone there to take care of it and to be the first negotiation partner for the production team. It is very difficult to sit a thousand miles away and take control of a production like this.’ Felix agrees, and spends the next three months putting together the pitch for Rai Uno, which doesn’t have a dedicated doc slot.

January 2004: Felix finishes revising the project with a new budget of E390,000 ($478,000). Much of the costs are still due to archival rights, but the prodco has shed some
of the more expensive footage. Felix receives happy, albeit unexpected, news in the form of draft contracts from ZDF/ARTE and AVRO (for E70,000/$85,000 and E15,000/$18,500 respectively). Rawie points out that it is typical for AVRO to come into copros for between five and 10%, but that they also help secure new partners. The project gains momentum with the addition of SBS Australia, YLE Finland and SVT in Sweden, all of which come in as pre-sales.

February 2004: Felix begins production without the contracts finalized, fearing they are running out of time. Rai Trade confirms its participation as both distributor and coproducer (a relatively rare move for the unit), offering in-kind services in the form of 15 minutes of archival material sourced from Rai Teche as their investment.

Remarkably, the work the Pettinis have done courting Rai Uno pays off, with the pubcaster formally committing to come aboard with a pre-buy. Rai Uno doesn’t have a dedicated doc strand, but plans a Loren theme night the doc can slot into.

While Roberto Olla works on the screenplay, Felix contacts interviewees, including Giorgio Armani, Robert Altman, Lina Wertmuller, Ettore Scola and Omar Sharif.

March 2004: The first official coproduction meeting takes place at the Rai Trade Screenings in Sicily. With plans for only one version of the film, AVRO and ZDF/ARTE ask that it be given a more international flavor with emphasis on Loren’s American period and her professionalism – they want to know why she became a star.

With the final agreement in place and the creative being hammered out, Felix is free to begin serious production. Felix approaches government-owned film production and promotion bodies Cinecittà Holding and Istituto Luce for financial support, but no answers are forthcoming. (As of press time, the producers were still waiting.)

April 2004: A good news/bad news month. While AVRO manages to obtain the participation of the CoBo Fund, bringing its contribution up to E38,500 ($47,000), a potentially huge problem surfaces: Surf Films in Rome is also producing a Loren doc, and they have lots of footage with which to work. The prodco has a catalog of classic movies, including 15 Loren films, and contacts that could help them gain access to others. Because Surf has the footage and because, as Pettini notes, ‘two documentaries could have been too much for the market,’ the companies join forces, with Surf coming on as associate producer. Pettini notes that Surf was less involved in production, as they were interested in the script and development. The merger, she says, has few problems. ‘In general, they approved all our choices,’ she explains. ‘We’re both Italian production companies, so in some way we think the same way about the idea of Sophia Loren.’

In the meantime, Felix confirms interviews with Scola (in Rome), Altman (in New York) and Sharif (in Paris). Sporadic shooting begins in May, ending the first day of June, capturing both the interviewees and several important locations in Loren’s life. Editor Danilo Perticara begins rough cuts on the archive material.

June 2004: The rough cut of Sophia is finished and the partners meet again in Rome. ZDF/ARTE’s Grunert admits to having initial fears about the script. It was ‘very Italian,’ he notes. ‘A lot of words, but not really coming to the point. I had to wonder what to expect…’

But Grunert says his concerns were unfounded. ‘I sat through the rough cut and thought it was a good idea to let an Italian filmmaker do it, because it was a very different film… It is a bit pathetic, a bit melodramatic. It’s a lot of fun. It is a bit kitschy. It really is an homage…You get the impression of [Loren as] a living creature.’

The only debate that takes place at rough cut is over the ending, where interviewees wish Loren a happy birthday. Rai Trade’s Portante was not a fan. ‘Clients look for excuses not to buy or not to pay the money you are asking for,’ he says. ‘So, if you leave it as a happy birthday… it really dates the production and reduces the shelf life.’ Its not an insurmountable problem, however,
as the ending is easily removed for future sales.

July 2004: Felix still has a few last thrills before final delivery. The prodco has to replace the low-res footage used for trial edits with the high-res footage they have licensed. Stress grows as some of the new stock takes three weeks to arrive.

October 2004: Looking for Sophia goes to MIPCOM.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.