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The Lunch

Rachel Idzerda for The Globe and Mail

Plotting disruption

Andrea Iervolino, founder and CEO of AMBI Pictures, is not playing by Hollywood’s rules

It doesn’t take a lot to upset film geeks, but still, the outrage directed at Andrea Iervolino was almost operatic. Some months ago, he and his company, AMBI Pictures, announced they were going to remake the amnesiac art-house thriller Memento. The 2001 film had made director Christopher Nolan a fanboy favourite, vaulting him to the big leagues of Batman Begins (2005) and Inception (2010). And so, when word about the remake got around, the online masses grew hysterical; a Guardian film critic sneered the move “reeks of desperation.” What, everyone sputtered, could the point possibly be?

If you calm down for a second, Mr. Iervolino will tell you, and he will do so in a manner that is both gracious and hard-headed. At 28, he has the certainty of a still-young man in a tradition-bound industry who believes he can disrupt his way to the top. And why not? Already his life, a rags-to-riches tale that seems lifted from an Italian melodrama, has shown him that anything is possible.

Zoom in, then, on Mr. Iervolino nestled in a cozy booth at the back of Sotto Sotto, the midtown Toronto neighbourhood ristorante that has been one of his regular haunts ever since he moved here from Rome last summer. A waiter brings him a bowl of minestrone, then sprinkles four spoonfuls of parmigiano into the soup. “Is for good luck,” grins Mr. Iervolino, a superstitious sort who had arranged to have this dinner on a Thursday evening because he doesn’t like to do anything important on Tuesdays or Fridays. The solicitous staff knows these idiosyncrasies, as well as his standing order: soup; a generous platter of mushrooms, spinach and potatoes; and spaghetti al pomodoro. (No wine: he doesn’t drink; we’ll explain that in a flashback you’ll find either mawkish or heartrending.)

“Is like my house, no?” he explains, accent thick as that tomato sauce. “Because I travel a lot. Every week I take two, three flight. So, in every city I have my favourite restaurant, and I go in the same restaurant and I order the same type of food. So here, they have my ordination,” he says, using a Catholic word for a culinary one. “In Rome, my ordination – they already know.

“It make me feel I am at my house, with my family, no? Because if you don’t have a family with you, is difficult.”

Most of Mr. Iervolino’s family actually works for him, either here in Toronto at AIC Studios, the Canadian division of his privately held AMBI Group, or at his base in Rome. But he’s too busy to see them much. He pulls out his calendar – an old-fashioned ring-bound paper number, scrawled with appointments from dawn to late night – and reads his itinerary aloud: Toronto, New York, London, Los Angeles, Rome, Dubai.

AMBI – the name is a jumbled acronym of Mr. Iervolino’s initials and those of his business partner, the rum widow Lady Monika Bacardi – has expanded since its launch in 2013 to include operations in Spain, Rome, and Los Angeles, as well as that Toronto studio in a converted furniture showroom in the east end, where eventually a work force of hundreds will pump out one animated film per year. Last fall, the company launched a $200-million (U.S.) fund to finance a slate of five movies costing $25-million to $30-million each and more than 10 others priced under $10-million.

Andrea Iervolino, left, and Lady Monika Bacardi.

Andrea Iervolino, left, and Lady Monika Bacardi.

Fabrizio Di Giulio/Handout/AMBI Group

It is an unusual strategy at an uncertain moment: Reflecting the wider economy (and, frankly, the premise of The Hunger Games), the film industry is becoming a place in which a handful of elite commercial franchises (Star Wars, Avengers, Jurassic things) gobble everything in sight while the hoi polloi (a.k.a. most other movies) starve. But Mr. Iervolino believes that by keeping production and marketing costs low, and retaining control over distribution, he can find a profitable niche between the boffo winners and the army of losers. His first experience in the industry, when he was not even old enough to hold a driver’s license, certainly showed a flair for raw salesmanship and bootstrapping innovation.

So flash back, then, to Andrea at age 15, and a summer spent in the northern Italian resort town of Bibione as a producer’s assistant on Broadway-style shows. He was immediately smitten with that world, but he recognized the structural problems in the economics of live performance: All that money to create a show, and you still had to pay out every week for the performers. So he decided to take a shot at making a movie, where the costs can be fixed and the revenues (theoretically) limitless. Returning to his hometown of Cassino, he wrote a medieval love story with a positive social message. Then, pretending to be someone by the name of Dr. Iervolino, he had an older associate arrange a meeting with the abbot of the nearby monastery, to seek permission to shoot there.

What you don’t yet know is that, for years as a child, Andrea had stuttered so badly that he all but stopped speaking entirely. His father, whose once-wealthy family had become destitute after his own father died of cancer at age 40, abused alcohol and terrorized his children. (Thus, the teetotaling Andrea.) Faced with a mute child they took to be an imbecile, educators had tried to have Andrea declared mentally handicapped and sent to a special school. His mother refused. “My mum, she save me because if she sign this document, I cannot have a driver’s license, I cannot open a company, I cannot do a business. I will become a different person,” he says. His teachers, stuck with him in the class, took to yelling at their tongue-tied charge.

So here he was now, standing awkwardly before the abbot. Two or three excruciating minutes crawled by before Andrea began to speak. Then, a miracle of sorts: Of course Andrea could shoot in the monastery, said the abbot. And how else, he asked, might the Church be able to help?

Location secured, the budding producer sought a cast and crew. “I went to who shoot weddings: He was my cameraman,” Mr. Iervolino recalls. “I went to the theatre: Those were my actors. I meet people in the street: ‘Oh, you are a good face, you look like a gladiator.’ So, I find in this way my movie.” He door-knocked local businesses, raising production funds by selling them ads in a commemorative booklet.

But once the film was done, the local cinemas refused to show it, apparently out of fear of upsetting the big distributors that were their main sources of product. Still, they said he could screen it in the mornings. So Andrea created an initiative called Cine School Day, striking a deal with local school boards to bring in students – at five euros a pop, thank you very much – to see the film. He staged contests at the packed theatres, awarding a few lucky kids each a small role in his next movie. He built out a distribution network and fed it with eight to 10 films per year: acquisitions or his own productions. He burnished his reputation by donating some of the money back to the schools. He met with politicians; the school boards added his movies to the curriculum.

CURRICULUM VITAE

Born: December 1, 1987 in Cassino, Italy

Education: High school. No higher education, though five or six years ago, “I went to teach in the University of Pisa, film production and distribution.”

Family: His mother was born in Canada and adopted by an Italian family who moved back to Italy before she was one year old. She now works at AMBI in Rome, alongside his brother. His sister works at AMBI Pictures in Toronto. His father still lives in Cassino.

Rum money: The Italian-born, Monaco-based Monika Bacardi, Lady of Bayfield Hall, is the widow of Lord Luis Bacardi, who died in 2005. An investor in the films of Mr. Iervolino’s mentor Luciano Martino, she co-founded AMBI Group with Mr. Iervolino after Mr. Martino died in 2013.

On the charge that he’s only remaking Memento for the money: “If somebody say that, is because they don’t know me. I can’t imagine somebody in our industry do something only for the money. You can make many profit in another business with less work.”

On maturity and forgiveness: “I have a big respect for my dad, because I analyze his life. I understand him. In this way, I love him more than I love him before.”

Working with Luciano Martino, a prolific producer of genre movies, Mr. Iervolino learned the trade and began to make the move into more legitimate fare. Over the past few years, he’s been a producer on films with A-list talent: Al Pacino and director Barry Levinson ( The Humbling, based on a Philip Roth novel), Sarah Jessica Parker (All Roads Lead to Rome) and James Franco (In Dubious Battle, directed by Mr. Franco, based on the John Steinbeck novel).

The Toronto animation studio is in the midst of crewing up on Arctic Justice: Thunder Squad, a 3D CGI pic whose voice talent will include Mr. Franco, Alec Baldwin, Heidi Klum, Anjelica Huston, Omar Sy, and John Cleese. Groove Tails with Jamie Foxx will follow. There’s a live action biopic of Ferruccio Lamborghini in the works. And, oh yes, in a cinematic first, last month Mr. Iervolino signed Pope Francis to appear in a new family adventure movie, Beyond the Sun, in which the pontiff will play himself. (All proceeds will go to a pair of Argentinean charities.)

Still, nothing has gotten quite as much attention as the Memento remake. Last fall, with New York-based Raven Capital Management, AMBI bought a majority stake in a 400-title library that includes that film as well as Cruel Intentions, Rush, and Donnie Darko. Much of the strategy depends on mining the intellectual property for remakes and sequels.

But he is no barbarian, Mr. Iervolino insists: He loves Memento, has seen it countless times! He understands why people would object, even if he approaches the project with immense respect. “Is like, ‘You touch my girlfriend!’” he explains. “So, if you touch my girlfriend – in any case, if she like it or not, I’m sad, no?” He says he just wants to make the movie accessible to a new audience. “I have a very strategic remake idea, and when I make my idea public, they will understand why this remake makes sense.”

“I take what works and make new visual idea, perfect for young generation. And 75 per cent of the income in the cinema come from people 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20.” He expects that the remake will give new life to the original; after the announcement, he says he was flooded with calls inquiring about rights to Mr. Nolan’s film.

We talk for a couple of hours, and then he requests an espresso: It is 9 p.m, and he has another meeting. The bill arrives but he snags it before it hits the table. He insists on paying. Smiling, he cites superstition: “For good luck!”

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