Three major film distribs, linked to U.S. companies by service pacts and output deals, are set to emerge as strongmen during the new season that begins in September, putting the smaller players in a corner.

The shakedown officially starts July 31, when the dying giant Penta Distribuzione banner folds. From the ashes of Penta, two rival distribs have risen – the Cecchi Gori Group and Medusa. The latter has been overhauled as Fininvest’s new pic division. The third transatlantic player is rising Italian concern RCS Films & TV.

In September, Medusa will begin releasing product from Castle Rock, Turner and Morgan Creek. Its Italo side is repped by big-name helmers including Dario Argento, Alessandro D’Alatri and Lina Wertmuller.

Medusa’s opening shots include “Forget Paris,” sequel “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” and “City Hall.”

With nearly 100 titles, the Cecchi Gori slate is larger than ever. It will entrust about 10 films to Buena Vista Italia (particularly Miramax product) and 25 more to Warner Bros. Italia. The rest will be released by Cecchi Gori Group.

Italo filmgoing seems to be surging. According to data released by the Italian copyright association SIAE, ticket sales rose by 5.2% in 1994 and B.O. grosses by 8.1%. But many distributors still are anxious.

“Investment in the cinema is not a money-making proposition as far as theatrical distribution is concerned,” says Vittorio Cecchi Gori. “There are only about 20 films a year that get more than 1 million admissions, whereas the worst film gets 3 million viewers when it’s aired on TV.”

While Penta released 57 pics last season, Aurelio De Laurentiis’ Filmauro, which finished the season just behind the giant, concentrated on just 12. Its tally was just over two-thirds of Penta’s total admissions.

Filmauro has resisted signing an output deal with an American producer. “We prefer to buy on a film-by-film basis,” says a company rep.

Filmauro’s slate for next sea son includes comedies by hitmakers Carlo Vanzina and Francesco Nuti and a surprising number of upscale pics, including Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s “Elective Affinities” and Pupi Avati’s “The Arcane Enchanter.”

Following the Cecchi Gori- WB deal, RCS dropped its service deal with Warner Bros, and announced that starting this summer, UIP (releasing Universal, Paramount and MGM product in Italy) will distribute its 12 pics.

After the company lost $50 million last year from its partnership with Carolco and its involvement in American production, RCS’ new topper, Patrizio Casalini, is picking up the pieces.

RCS’ big output deal now is with Polygram, which will provide the Coen brothers’ “Fargo,” Jane Campion’s “Portrait of a Lady” and Tim Robbins’ “Dead Man Walking.”

The coming season’s lineup for Fulvio Lucisano’s Italian Intl. Film includes U.S. hit “French Kiss” and Italo comedies by Maurizio Nichetti and Carlo Vanzina.

Coming from Life Intl., headed by Roberto Cimpanelli, are “The Madness of King George” and “Muriel’s Wedding.”

Kermit Smith and Andrea Occhipinti’s Lucky Red distribbery has set for fall release Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man.”

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