Italians find ‘Sith’ a summer snooze

'Star Wars' stellar in Germany, France but fails spark in Italy

ROME — For some reason, Italians just don’t appreciate a good Jedi battle.

“Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” is not galvanizing the land of Galileo, where the latest installment in the George Lucas saga has tallied a mere E8 million ($9.7 million) since its May 20 bow.

In nearby Spain, considered a parallel to Italy at the box office, “Sith” pulled in more than that — $13.1 million — its opening weekend alone. Space epic now is navigating in Spain at more than $20.6 million.

Returns for “Sith” in France (more than $60.6 million) and Germany ($54.5 million) have skyrocketed to much greater heights.

“Italy is the only country in the world where ‘Star Wars’ didn’t work,” laments Warner Village Cinemas Italia commercial director Nicola Grispello.

That may be true. But, then, as Yoda might say, never has the Force in Italy stratospheric biz done.

“The Phantom Menace” grossed just over $12.1 million. “Attack of the Clones” pulled in $10.06 million.

” ‘Star Wars’ just doesn’t belong to the Italian cultural Zeitgeist. I don’t know if that is good or bad, but it’s a fact that we have to contend with,” claims Fox Italy general director Alberto Pasquale.

Among other motives Pasquale cites are an aversion toward “anything connected with high-tech and sci-fi” in the country’s Southern regions, and an elitist disdain toward the Lucas franchise.

“In Germany, even snobbish intellectuals go see ‘Star Wars.’ In Italy they don’t,” says Pasquale. Yet, “we did expect a bit more,” admitted the Fox Italy exec. “We’d done massive promo, gotten lots of great press and opened wide.”

So, regardless of cultural factors that may make Italy unique, the soft “Sith” is still seen by local industryites as symptomatic of the deep malaise that has struck the country’s moviegoers.

Figures announced June 21 in Rome at Italy’s national exhibitors confab showed a steep 17.8% dropoff at the box office for the first half of the year (to $307 million), compared with the first semester of 2004.

And while most of Europe (except the U.K.) is also in a slump, situation in Italy is more extreme. France is down 6%, Spain 8%, while Germany suffered a 14% drop in the first half.

The main culprit, according to local exhibs, are Italy’s release patterns, which are out of sync with the rest of Europe.

Despite the fact that the country now has 2,000 air-conditioned screens, summer still means a lack of product in Italy.

“Italy simply has a different consumption pattern. In most of the country you are near the beach, and this makes a huge difference,” says Fox’s Pasquale.

“Batman Begins” bowed June 16 day-and-date to a soft $1.9 million opening weekend, about half what Warner Bros. was hoping for.

Autumn leaves

Among titles going out this summer in the rest of Europe that will instead unspool on Italo screens in the fall, are UIP’s “Madagascar,” Fox’s “Fantastic Four” and BVI’s “Herbie: Fully Loaded.”

“Family films like ‘Herbie’ and ‘Madagascar’ are at an additional disadvantage,” says Buena Vista Intl. Italy topper Paul Zonderland, because they would otherwise attract crowds during the day, when kids are available — but families are at the beach instead.

“On the other hand, I cannot deny that summer is the only period of the year when kids are off school. So I think we have to take the approach of the optimistic shoe salesman in Africa. One says: ‘There is no market, everybody’s barefoot.’ The other says: ‘There is a huge market, everybody’s barefoot,'” adds Zonderland, who is drafting a plan for a massive three-year summer promo campaign.

Italy is also the only major international territory where “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” will go out at Christmas, via RAI Cinema’s 01 distribution arm. The Italo indie cannot afford to take any chances on what was surely a hefty investment, Christmas being Italy’s most lucrative box office period.

“If these pics had been released day-and-date with the rest of Europe, instead of being under 18%, we’d be down 5%,” claims Warner Village’s Grispello. “And ‘Sith’ would have benefited as well.”

Italo industry now is hoping auds will support Roberto Benigni’s romantic comedy “The Tiger and the Snow,” in which the funnyman plays a lovestruck poet who winds up in Iraq at the outset of the American-led invasion. “Nobody can stop a man in love,” proclaims promo for the pic, due out via 01 in October.

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