18% drop blamed on piracy, warm weather

ROME — Italian B.O. dropped a dramatic 17.8% to e253 million ($307 million) between January and mid-June compared with the same period in 2004, which was a bumper year.

Admissions fell 18% to 42.7 million in the same period, according to Cinetel, which compiles national box office data.

Highlighting the plunge, “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” has pulled in a mere $9.7 million in five weeks — among pic’s poorest takes worldwide. “Batman Begins” opened last weekend at $1.94 million, about half what Warner Bros. was expecting.

The drop, steeper than in neighboring Germany, Spain and France, is setting off alarm bells in an industry that is bringing release patterns in line with Europe. Pics traditionally don’t open in the hot summer months here because few theaters have air conditioning, which means a glut of pics at other times.

“There is a drop all across Europe, but it’s more extreme here,” said Paul Zonderland, topper of Buena Vista Intl. Italy. “It will improve in the second half, but I don’t expect it to recoup entirely.”

May and June have been especially critical, with a 34.4% month-on-month drop in May, according to Cinetel, and an even greater drop so far this month. Local exhibitors and distribs attribute the slump to piracy; Italy’s economic downturn; sunny weather; a lack of strong product; and Italy’s unregulated homevid window, which pushes movies out of theaters sooner. Some pics are released on DVD while still playing in theaters, as happened with “Fahrenheit 9/11″ last year.

“Theatrical is the first link in a film’s economic chain and must be safeguarded at all costs,” said UIP Italy topper Richard Borg, who also heads the country’s distributors org, Unidim. He urged the government to intervene by imposing a homevideo window.

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