Italo auds absent

Despite 'plex boom, admissions plummet

ROME — While the boom in multiplex construction in recent years has resulted in a proliferation of screens in Italy, the number of tickets sold this season has fallen dramatically, with homegrown productions experiencing the most severe dropoff.

Figures compiled by national box office monitor Cinetel for the current theatrical season — which kicked off last August and runs through June — show a decrease of over 1.5 million admissions from the same period last season.

But while U.S. productions and other imports have weathered the drop with only minor losses, Italian films have been hard hit.

From August 1998 through March 1999, locally made features generated 16 million admissions, while this season, the total so far is just over 9 million, representing a dip of almost 50%.

“Bad films means fewer audiences,” says exhibition exec Gianluigi Della Casa, who heads the nationwide Cinema 5 chain.In the 1998-99 season, five Italian productions figured among the top 15 moneyspinners, headed by runaway Christmas ’98 hit “That’s Life” in the top position.

This season, however, only two films have made it into the top 15: “The Fish in Love” in eighth position and “Christmas Vacation 2000” in 10th.

The disaffection of Italian audiences for national product is exemplified by the fact that even powerhouse releases from previously proven hitmakers have failed or seriously underperformed.

“The Fish in Love” made roughly a quarter of the hefty grosses of actor-director Leonardo Pieraccioni’s earlier hits “The Cyclone” and “Fireworks”; the appearance in Christmas release “All the Moron’s Men” of superstar comic trio Aldo, Giovanni and Giacomo couldn’t boost that film’s modest results; and popular Roman comic Carlo Verdone’s latest, “A Chinese in a Coma,” is struggling to stay afloat after a disappointing two weeks in theaters.

The less mainstream end of the market is proving no more receptive to local entries. Despite critical support, most Italian arthouse releases this season have failed to gross more than 1 billion lire ($555,000), causing serious industry concern about the ever-decreasing profile of national cinema.

In an almost unheard-of display of humility for an Italian director, Verdone published a mea culpa last weekend in national daily Corriere della Sera, ruminating on where he went wrong with his current release, starting with the title.

Most filmmakers tend instead to point the finger at unsupportive press and audiences addicted to big-budget U.S. popcorn pics, refusing to pause and reflect earnestly on the merits of their own work.

“What’s needed here are producers who are willing to take risks,” suggests Della Casa.

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