Netflix will produce a new series titled Zero, an Italian-language show based on the work of 27-year-old Antonio Dikele Distefano, a formerly self-published Italian author whose books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies since he signed with Mondadori.
The Netflix series will follow the adventures of Zero, the hero from Distefano’s 2018 novel Non ho mai avuto la mia eta (I was never my age). Netflix described the forthcoming show as “an original and unique exploration of the Milanese suburbs, a rich and diverse world of underrepresented cultures mixed with rap elements.” Distefano will work on the script with Italian comic book artist and screenwriter Roberto Marchionni, along with a team of other Italian screenwriters; production begins in 2020.
Distefano is the child of Angolan immigrants, and his novels explore the lives the children of immigrants. “I show Italian kids that there is not only one way of being black and that our reality is different from what is shown in TV,” he told PW via a translated statement. “Second-generation children born in Italy to African parents who moved to Italy are isolated and considered suspicious by the Italian kids.”
Distefano’s books fill a void in the Italian publishing scene. “In Italy, we practically had no literature on the difficulty of being black in an Italian county,” said Emanuela Canali, the foreign rights manager at Mondadori, discussing the rising international star. “Certainly, he has become a symbol for immigrant people who live here in Italy.”
Distefano self-published his first novel, Fuori piove, dentro pure, passo a prenderti? (It’s raining outside, it’s raining inside. Shall I pick you up?), at age 19. The novel found its first audience on Amazon. “Self-publishing was the only option for me,” he said. “I knew that in order to be discovered, I had to establish myself some way. When I started writing, I studied hard—I studied the best way to self-publish. Google was my school.”
Impressed by the young author’s writing and self-published sales, former Mondadori editorial director Antonio Riccardi gave Distefano his card at a literary festival. “I didn’t even know that Mondadori was the leading Italian publishing company,” Distefano recalled. Nevertheless, he signed with Mondadori, and Fuori piove made its traditional publishing debut in 2015.
Aimed at young adults, the novel sold about 100,000 copies, “which is quite a lot for the Italian market,” noted Canali. Two more novels, also for young adult readers, followed.
Non ho mai avuto la mia eta was the fourth of Distefano’s books published by Mondadori and is aimed at adults. The book, Canali said, is “a cross-section of the lives of young boys and girls, who, like Zero, only got a punch in the face from life.” The work earned a nomination for Italy’s prestigious Strega Prize earlier this year. It did not make the finalist list but has remained popular.
When the Netflix news broke last month, Distefano’s books had no English translations. That should change soon. “After the Netflix announcement, I’ve received great expression of interest,” Canali said. “So I’m following these up.” (At press time, no U.S. publisher had signed Distefano.)
Zero is part of Netflix’s ongoing strategy to invest in foreign-language properties that can resonate with global audiences. In a January letter to shareholders, the streaming company celebrated the global performance of Baby, a show produced by Rome-based Fabula Pictures, which will also produce the forthcoming project with Distefano. Netflix noted that 10 million households streamed Baby in the first four weeks of its release in 2018.
During an interview with PW earlier this year, Kelly Luegenbiehl, v-p of creative for international originals at Netflix, referenced, without mentioning the novelist by name, that the streaming service’s (then-unfinalized) deal with Distefano exemplified this global push. “In the past, the prevailing wisdom would have been to have everyone speak English in order to make it a more global show,” Luegenbiehl said. But the executive found that “authentic” foreign-language properties can resonate with “universal audiences.”
“When I was a little boy, there was much curiosity and ignorance,” Distefano said. “I was the only black boy, and the frequent questions were: Why are you this color? Are you made of chocolate?”
Through his self-published and traditionally published work, Distefano said that he hopes to empower the children of immigrants in Italy. “I show second-generation children that we are not only how ‘they’ see us, and that they can do more.”