After years of watching theater admissions decline, distributors here finally had something to be cheerful about when admissions for the Dec. 18 to Jan. 6 period were up nearly 1 million from the same period last year. But war in the Persian Gulf may kill what might have been the best theatrical season in recent memory.

Fueling distribs’ optimism was an increase of 13% in admissions over last Christmas in the peninsula’s 12 largest cities and 76 key cities. Taking a broader view, admissions for the period from September 1990 to January 1991 were up 4.2% from last year – not a huge jump but the biggest increase in a decade.

A look at gross receipts for the Christmas period is equally encouraging. Distribs raked in 40.3% more than they did last year. Taking into consideration a 20% increase in ticket prices – it costs about $9 to see a firstrun film here – holiday grosses still are up by about 20%. In a country with no summer exhib season to speak of, Christmas receipts traditionally account for 20% of the year’s total b.o.

Tide has turned

“We can finally say that the tide has turned and that people have rediscovered the enjoyment of an evening at the movies. I think the upward trend will continue throughout the season until summer. War permitting, that is,” said Stefano Plini of Penta Distribuzione.

Columbia Tri-Star Films Italia topper Ricardo Avila was equally positive: “It does look like the reversal of a negative trend. Maybe not a boom, but certainly an increase.”

Paolo Ferrari of WB Italia was a bit more careful in analyzing the Christmas results: “I would be more cautious in saying the trend in diminishing admissions has turned around. Let’s just say that the situation has improved.”

Lion’s share of the Christmas booty went to WB Italia’s “The Little Mermaid,” which pulled in $10,017,608 (according to II Giornale Dello Spettacolo), followed by UIP’s “Rocky V” with $7,276,530 and Penta’s “Total Recall” with $6,967,086.

Yank pix top 3

American films held the top three spots on the Christmas chart, but Italo comedies “Christmas Vacation 90,” “Fantozzi’s Revenge,” “Tonight At Alice’s” and Bertolucci’s “Tea In The Desert” also earned a place in the top 10. More surprisingly, Penta Distribuzione replaced WB Italia as the country’s top distrib after receipts from the Christmas period had been counted.

With 27 films released since September, Penta (owned by Silvio Berlusconi and Mario and Vittorio Cecchi Gori) totaled 7,219,191 spectators, beating WB Italia (the traditional market leader) by about 1 million. Though Penta is an Italian distributor, most of its top-ranking product is American (“Weekend At Bernie’s,” “Total Recall”) with a few Italo comedies (“The Comics,” “Fantozzi’s Revenge”) produced by affil Penta Film.

In addition to the strength of its film product, Penta Distribuzione’s success can be attributed to the convenient promo tie-in with co-owner Silvio Berlusconi’s three national tv networks. The webs air trailers for Penta films at regular intervals, especially on latenight tv. Penta receives the airtime at a price considerably lower than other advertisers – some distribs even say for free.

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