Despite the buoyant performances of a handful of hit releases – headed by “Dumb and Dumber,” “Waterworld,” “First Knight” and “French Kiss” – Italy’s 1995-96 box office season is off to a disappointing start, with admissions down by some 500,000 from the same period last year.

Undoubtedly, the major cause of the drop has been the Indian-summer weather that’s drawing bigger crowds to the country’s beaches on mid-October weekends; August was uncharacteristically wet. But industry observers also are placing blame on the continued failure to extend the Italo B.O. season beyond its cramped confines.

High-profile features traditionally are released in Italy from September through May, and despite an increasing push in recent years to shorten the summer lull by opening strong titles in June and July and then in late August, this year’s season got off to an even slower start than usual.

In 1994, such key titles as “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “The Client,” “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “Queen Margot” were earning steadily in theaters from late August. This year, however, only a very limited cluster of strong titles hit the market as early as Sept. 1.

Warm weather has always been a prime factor conspiring against getting Italians into movie theaters. Both August and September were fairly dismal this year, and national B.O. could have profited from some big guns. But the sole early-bird releases to reap those rewards were “Dumb and Dumber” and “French Kiss,” earning $7.2 million and $3.6 million, respectively, in the key cities to date. The only other prime title to open early in September was “While You Were Sleeping,” which failed to click with Italo auds.

Italian exhibitors have been vocal for several seasons now about trying to persuade distribs to launch bigger titles during the lean months. In the past, most theaters closed down for the summer due to lack of air-conditioning. But that situation has improved, and while the multiplex boom is slow to take hold of the peninsula, Italo hardtops are generally better equipped than a few years back. However, many quality, air-conditioned theaters are languishing through the May-September period with nothing but second-string releases to show.

“Something has to be done about the way release dates in this country are organized,” says Gianluigi Della Casa, head of the nationwide Cinema 5 chain. “Elsewhere, big titles also are released during the summer, but in Italy, all the distributors continue to refuse to open before mid-September, and then everything comes out at an astounding rhythm.”

This year, since “Crimson Tide” and “Waterworld” opened Sept. 15, a string of blockbusters including “First Knight,” “Batman Forever,” “Apollo 13″ and, next week, “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” has been unleashed with scant breathing space between them.

While several of the 63 pics released so far this season have performed well, many of them might have fared considerably better in a less crowded market. Each consecutive new release has bucked the previous entries out of the saddle well before their full B.O. potential was reached.

“This is cannibalism,” Della Casa said. “It makes no sense to launch 12 or so major releases in quick succession onto a market that’s too restricted to accommodate them. These films end up being sacrificed because of overcrowding.

“While we continue to wait for more multiplexes to be built, allowing the situation to change, we have to think about planning release dates a little more carefully.”

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