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Dino De Laurentiis, pioneer of N.C. film industry, dies at 91

BY DENNIS MCLELLAN

Dino De Laurentiis, the flamboyant Italian movie producer who helped resurrect his nation’s film industry after World War II and helped launch the industry in North Carolina, has died at 91. For more than six decades, he produced films as diverse as the 1954 Federico Fellini classic “La Strada” and the 1976 remake of “King Kong”.

De Laurentiis, who moved to the U.S. in the 1970s and continued to produce films until 2007, died Wednesday night at his Beverly Hills home, his daughter Raffaella De Laurentiis said in a statement Thursday. The cause was not given.

More than anyone else, De Laurentiis was responsible for jump-starting the modern era of movie production in North Carolina. His Dino De Laurentiis Company came to the Chimney Rock and Wilmington areas to shoot a version of Stephen King’s novel “Firestarter” in 1983.
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He opened a studio in Wilmington the following year, attracted by various advantages: good weather, locations that could double for other parts of the world and especially right-to-work laws that made non-union productions possible. He sold the studio four years later, and the movies he made there (such as “Silver Bullet” and “Year of the Dragon”) were rarely acclaimed by audiences or critics. But he started a filmmaking boom that briefly made North Carolina the third-busiest state in America, behind California and New York.

De Laurentiis launched his long career as a producer in Italy in the 1940s and in the next decade produced two Oscar-winning best foreign films – Fellini’s “La Strada” (with then-partner Carlo Ponti) and Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria” (1957).

As film producers in Italy after World War II, “De Laurentiis and Ponti in particular took the function of producer, which had never been highly regarded in European cinema before this, and raised it to a higher level,” said University of Southern California film professor Rick Jewell.

De Laurentiis, Jewell said in 2007, “was involved with some very important films at that time. Those films didn’t just help resurrect the Italian film industry but brought attention to the Italian film industry that it had never done before.”

In 1962, the prolific producer began building a sprawling studio complex on the outskirts of Rome that he called Dinocitta – Dino City.

During the 1960s De Laurentiis produced films such as director Richard Fleischer’s “Barabbas,” starring Anthony Quinn; John Huston’s star-studded “The Bible,” and Roger Vadim’s “Barbarella,” starring Jane Fonda. De Laurentiis is credited with pioneering the now-common practice of financing films by pre-selling the distribution rights in foreign countries.

His company also produced Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet.”

After selling his studio and moving to the United States in the 1970s, De Laurentiis produced films such as “Serpico,” “Death Wish,” “Three Days of the Condor,” “The Serpent’s Egg,” “Ragtime” and “Conan the Barbarian.”

But De Laurentiis’ namealso became synonymous with expensive box-office failures such as “Dune,” “Tai-Pan” and “King Kong Lives.”

Veteran Associated Press Hollywood reporter Bob Thomas once summed up De Laurentiis’ varied output as “high-brow and low-brow, huge moneymakers and expensive flops.”

Hit or miss, in an industry in which directors are deified, De Laurentiis had no doubt as to where he stood in the cinematic scheme of things.

“If no producer, no movie,” he growled in a 2002 interview with Canada’s The Globe and Mail.

By 1985, De Laurentiis was running a 32-acre movie studio in Wilmington. Among the films produced under the DEG banner was avant-garde director David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” which was a critical hit but a disappointment at the box office.

De Laurentiis stepped down as chairman in February 1988, and six months later his company was forced to file for bankruptcy. But in 1990, the producer obtained backing and formed another company, Dino De Laurentiis Communications.

“De Laurentiis has that quality that all great producers have, which is – I suppose momentum is the best word I can think of,” Jewell said. “This is a guy that always had that forward momentum.”

In 2001, De Laurentiis received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences board of governors in recognition of “creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistent high quality.”

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