Rome-based Cattleya, which Universal Pictures owns 20% of, is sifting through the studio’s library looking for titles to remake in Italian. Cattleya’s remake of French comedy Welcome to the Sticks, Benvenuti Al Sud, opens on October 1 in Italy. It’s moved the action to Naples, associated in most Italian minds with the Mafia. The original French film was about a man posted from Paris to the drab Calais region. Welcome to the Sticks generated 500,000 admissions in Italy. Marco Chimenz, executive vice-president of Cattleya, tells me that remaking titles from Universal’s library is easier than trying to remake something from scratch. “Remaking movies becomes difficult and expensive when there are lots of rights holders,” Chimenz says. “That’s less of an issue when it comes to movies Universal wholly owns.”

Remaking Uni movies in Italian is part of Cattleya’s push into more international production. It’s developing two news English-language movies into production. Sea Full Of Crocodiles is based on the true story of an Afghanistani boy who spent 6 years trekking on foot escaping the Taliban to find refuge in Italy. Production should start autumn 2011. “It’s a story about immigration, which is a hot button subject at the moment, while also being a Slumdog Millionaire-type fantastic adventure,” Cattleya president Riccardo Tozzi tells me. Gabriela Salvatores’ Siberian Education, which Cattleya hopes to start shooting next March, is another true story based on author Nicolai Lilin’s upbringing in a criminal Urka village on the Romanian border in the 80s. Urkas are a Russian ethnic minority who first defied the Tsar and then the Soviet government. Stalin let them rule the gulags in Soviet Russia. Lilin found himself convicted of attempted murder by the age of 12.

“What we’re doing is trying to find subjects that appeal more to the international market,” Tozzi tells me. “Making them in English will help us attract American actors. Universal’s input will be crucial when it comes to attaching US talent.”

Chimenz says the company decides which projects it’s going to make in English based on how international their appeal might be. Past movies it’s made in English include Ripley’s Game, starring John Malkovich, and Tea With Mussolini, starring Cher. Focus Features International, Uni’s overseas sales arm, comes in and decides which films it wants to get involved with on a project-by-project basis. Universal then releases titles in Italy, while Focus has first option to sell internationally.

Cattleya is currently shooting two Italian-language projects simultaneously. Cristina Comencini’s When the Night was going to be filmed in English, until Cattleya decided the subject matter was too parochial. This psychosexual thriller set in the northern Italian Dolomites is in its 3rd week of shooting. Emanuele Crialese’s Terra Firma is filming on one of the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily. Italy is the second-biggest market for local language films after France. Local films are expected to carve out a 28% market share in 2010, accounting for €220 million at the box office, or 36 million tickets sold. Cattleya produced this year’s sole Italian Competition entry at Cannes, Daniele Luchetti’s Our Life.

The company makes between four and five films each year. Its most recent hit that crossed borders was Romanzo Criminale in 2006, nominated for a Golden Bear in Berlin, and the Oscar-nominated Don’t Tell the year before that. Over the years, Cattleya has established itself as the most US friendly Italian production company. It acted as service producer on Hollywood movies including Nine and Cold Mountain for the Weinsteins.

Uni became a shareholder in January 2009 as part of its strategy to develop a network of foreign local-language producers feeding into the studio. This marked the first occasion a US studio invested in an Italian film company. The studio signed a similar deal with Germany’s UFA Films in April 2009. Cattleya bandies market information and what’s going on elsewhere in Europe with Christian Grass, president of international production and acquisitions for Universal Pictures International (UPI) and his London-based team. Cattleya may also shoot Italian versions of films UPI is making in other countries too. “Cattleya one of the true indie production companies who don’t have distribution,” says Grass. “Hopefully it’s a partnership that’s going to go a lot further.”

UPI has co-produced two Italian features Universal will shortly release in Italy: Luca Lucini’s La Donna Della Mia Vita (Nov 26) and Un Altro Mondo, directed by and starring local heart-throb Silvio Muccino (Dec 24). Grass says he’s really excited about this last film in particular — Muccino is a big star in Italy. Chimenz adds: “This double commitment from Uni, investing in both the company and in individual projects, has made us stronger from a financial point of view.”

Uni signed fixed-term producer deals with director Fernando Mereilles and O2 Filmes (Blindness) and Russian director/producer Timur Bekmambetov and his Moscow-based Bazelevs. I understand that the two-year deal with Bazelevs has already expired.

Italy is having something of a film boom this year. Cattleya predicts that Italian admissions will rise by 20% this year to hit 120 million. Box office will also rise by 30% this year to reach €800 million ($981 million).

Sometimes the distance between Hollywood and Rome though is more than 6,353 miles. Hollywood sees movies as a business with some scope for art; Europe mostly sees cinema as an art form you can make a little money from. Uni’s founder Carl Laemmle named the studio after seeing a truck advertising “Universal Pipe Fittings” pass by his office window; Tozzi named Cattleya after Marcel Proust’s favourite orchid.