At its heart, film-making in Italy during the golden age of Italian cinema was – despite the claims of auteur directors proclaiming their artistry – a business, and business needs to fulfill a set of conditions in order to thrive. Whether selling coffee, shoes or movies, you need to have a product that is if it isn’t exactly good, certainly meets the consumer’s requirements. You need to innovate occasionally (although not all the time… sometimes it’s better to take other people’s innovations and improve upon or adapt them) and you need to have a means of reaching your audience. Without having these in place you are doomed to fail.
From the 1950s to the 1970s the Italian film industry was successful because it met these conditions. The quality of the product was maintained through the workshop model of film-making, whereby established craftsmen (cinematographers, editors, art directors) would be trusted to take responsibility for their area of expertise. Innovation was down to the more adventurous producers, who were willing to invest funds made elsewhere in sometimes outre material as well as to seize quickly on any passing fad that happened to fly by. Reaching the audience, the key ingredient as that’s what bought the money in, was taken care of by distribution, which is our key point of interest here. If anyone wants a reason why the film industry in Italy declined during the 80s and is still in seemingly permanent remission; well it’s because – thanks to inattention, the changing marketplace and increased competition – none of these three conditions were being met any more.
In the postwar period, a distribution system evolved in Italy which was based around the three main types of cinema that existed in the country. These have been much discussed in academic circles and are generally boiled down as follows:
- The prima visione (first run) theatres. These were limited to the major cities and were generally used for premieres and major releases. They’re roughly the equivalent of the cinemas found in Leicester Square in London. Tickets in these would cost something like 500 lire (about 80 cents)
- The seconda visione (second run) cinemas. These were more numerous, both in the major cities and also in smaller (although still sizeable) towns. Tickets cost about 200 lire (about 30 cents)
- The terza visione (third run) cinemas. Although some of these did exist in the major cities, they were more often found in the provinces and in towns with a population of less than 50,000 people. Tickets in these could fall to as low as 50 cents (under 10 cents).
The general way that films filtered through these is as a kind of waterfall model. More important releases would show in prima visione cinemas then pass through to secondo and then terza visione cinemas, where they might show and be re-shown for many years. Traditional popular cinema – your peplums, giallos, melodramas, westerns etc – would debut in secondo visione cinemas but then move quickly into the terza visione cinemas. Many of the more prestigious films that Italy is best known for today (such as the works of Fellini, Antonioni, Rosi and so on) were really only intended for prima and secondo visione cinemas, where the profits were more substantial but the audiences smaller and the runs shorter.
The secondo and terzo visione cinemas were also rather particular. The audiences were largely composed of men and mainly the working class. Programs were changed regularly, often daily, with little advance information about upcoming showings, and everything was based around the idea that people could simply ‘drop in’. These were not dark auditoriums where people watched the screen in rapt silence; they were smoke filled, noisy, full of people arriving and departing, playing cards or having chats about what was happening in the film (or simply having chats). Therefore, the argument goes, they were the perfect fit for films which were based on repetitious or familiar story lines, as people could watch a fight, murder or sex scene, have a cigarette, engage in a bit of gossip, and then pay attention again when something else happened without losing the thread of the narrative; heck, they could even watch ha!f a film one day, come back the next and because the two films were so similar it would still make some kind of sense. So having hundreds of peplums that basically all have the same story in which a big lummox battles an evil tyrant or westerns in which a lone gunfighter shoots it out with a charismatic villain were absolutely perfect.
The financial import of the secondo and terzo visione cinemas far outweighed that of the prima visione network, which was more significant as a seal of approval that they gave to a production. In the 1960s, for instance, just under three quarters of all box office receipts came from tickets costing under 200 lire (i.e. secondo or terzo visione cinemas).
Of course, the true picture is possibly a little more murky than this simplistic breakdown implies. According to Christopher Wagstaff’s key essay A Forkful of Western: Industry Audiences and the Italian Western this fostered a situation which favoured: “… the production of cheap films in large quantities rather than well-financed ones in moderate quantities. The medium-level, good-quality film was poorly represented in the Italian system of production.” In fact, one thing that was notable about Italian genre film of the sixties was the volume of films which did have a decent budget: to take Spaghetti Westerns, for instance, directors like Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Sollima or Damiano Damiani were able to call on a reasonable level of funding (which was made to look even more generous thanks to their craftsman skills). It was in the 1970s, when these models were beginning to change and following a minor crisis in the cinema, that the mid-range productions became less sustainable. This period was marked by a the increased difficulty just about every genre filmmaker experienced in raising the money for new work, an increased divergence between prestigious and ‘popular’ fare and also the large number of failed projects at the time (more on the late 60s crisis at another time).
In fact, it is the very decline of the secondo and more particularly terzo visione cinemas which made it more difficult to make such medium budget productions. Sales on a provincial level were usually made through regional distributors, each of whom would handle a large network of theaters. Often prior to even starting a shoot a producer would come to an agreement with one or two of these key distributors and be given a credit note – sometimes covering pretty much the entire budget – in exchange for sole distribution rights for the resulting film. As a result the producer’s investment was safeguarded and work could begin on the film with the reasonable expectation that at least a moderate profit would be made. One under explored area of Italian cinema, in fact, is the very power that these distributors could wield. They often had an input into the story, the marketing and the casting (Demofilo Fidani, for instance, recalled how if he was able to cast Klaus Kinski in his films the credit he’d be advanced by the distributors would increase exponentially)
Of course, domestic distribution wasn’t the only way that these popular films made money; in fact a substantial proportion of their income came from sales abroad. Italian genre cinema, especially during the 1960s, was hugely popular around the world. Some titles were big successes in the English speaking market (Pietro Francisci’s Hercules and Hercules Unchained, for instance) and other were sold for a decent sum to television networks in the US. But it was in the developing world that they made the most impact, with even the most modest of production pulling in audiences throughout the Middle East, Asia, the Caribbean and Africa (where both tastes and the way films were viewed wasn’t too disimilar to the terza visione cinemas in Italy). Actors remember being swamped by fans when arriving in these countries, even for films that had been otherwise forgotten or had been and gone without a whisper in Italy; and references to Italian films are commonplace in films produced in, say, Hong Kong or in the reggae music of Jamaica.
The model for distribution was pretty much the same as for domestic release: producers would sell – often as advance credit – the international distribution rights to international experts, who would then pocket the profits if they made more money than they’d paid for them. Again these shadowy figures could have a considerable input into a production, insisting that certain scenes were included or maybe a local star was cast. They would come up with a catchy title and appropriate marketing, sometimes even re-cutting and reediting a film. Often the responsibility of the cast and crew was ended when the film was in the can, so they had little idea what happened to all their work beyond that (hence the perhaps apocryphal tales of actors discovering they had been top-billed in films which they never knew had been made).
This led to some bizarre practices, most particularly as the 1970s drew on. Many of the international distribution networks folded in the late 1960s – another reason for the temporary glitch in the industry which took place at that time – with two distinct results. Firstly a more insular approach in the industry, with ascendant genres such as the poliziotteschi and the sexy comedy being more targeted at domestic than international audiences. Secondly, the international distributors became more desperate in their attempts to customise Italian product for the market. Pornography was much in vogue in France, for instance, so it became common to shoot hardcore inserts and shoehorn them into the most otherwise innocuous of product in order to make them more sellable (sometimes this was done by the filmmakers themselves, sometimes locally by the distributors).
The result of this was that otherwise unaware directors would find their works to have been popular in red light districts and performers would be appalled to find themselves apparently engaging in pornographic sequences thanks to the injudicious insertion of some otherwise unconnected porn close ups. It was a sleight of hand which kept the profits coming in, at least in the short term. But international markets were undergoing similar shifts to those which had already occurred in Europe: audiences were gravitating to TV, independent cinemas were folding at an alarming rate and distribution was becoming increasingly monopolized by a few big players (who often owned the theatres as well). The system which had served Italian cinema so well had soon totally collapsed, and unfortunately nobody seemed to have an idea of an alternative approach which could replace it.