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Italians See Thaw In Filmbiz

With numbers for theater admissions on the increase for the first time in 10 years, Italian exhibitors have reason to hope the crisi del cinema (film industry crisis) will soon be a thing of the past.

Exhibs in large Italo cities have upgraded their theaters in the past few years to stay competitive, and industry players agree that each major city will be able to offer at least one multiplex and dozens of renovated, modernized facilities by the end of the 1990s.

According to statistics from the National Exhibitors Assn., there are some 2,450 hardtops on the peninsula, 700 of which are parochial cinemas, a holdover from the days when the parish priest used to show weekly films to the faithful. When compared with the 7,500 theaters in operation at the end of the 1970s (and the 11,500 hardtops of the 1950s), it becomes obvious how badly exhibs have been hit by the film crisis.

Status quo lacks status

While things are getting better, the status quo is still not great. Film exhibition still largely consists of small, often family-run theaters. Distribs complain that exhibs do not honor booking dates, making it impossible to coordinate well-timed releases. And the numerous singly owned theaters lack capital to spend on renovation and are more vulnerable to fluctuations in the market. In Rome, for instance, 11 more hardtops closed in 1990 alone.

Only the larger film exhibitors – the ones that can afford to invest in renovation – are beginning to show a bit of cautious optimism when talking about the future. And there are still too few significant film circuits in Italy, making the logistics of co-ordinating a “big” release (anything over 100 prints) something of a nightmare for a distrib forced to deal at with least seven or eight different circuits and groups.

With 42 cinemas under its management, Cinema 5 is one of Italy’s biggest circuits. Backed by tv magnate Silvio Berlusconi’s seemingly endless resources, the chain has set a new standard for theater quality in Italy. Cinema 5 general manager Gianluigi Della Casa is enthusiastic about the results of the 8 billion lire ($6.9 million) the company has spent so far in renovating and improving Cinema 5 theaters in Rome and Milan.

“I’m convinced that theater renovation pays,” Della Casa says.” ‘The Sheltering Sky’ grosses double the amount at Cinema 5’s Fiamma – where it’s shown in 70m – than it does at other theaters in Rome. ‘Die Hard 2’ grossed 30% of its national total in our Odeon multiplex alone, which is the only theater in Italy that has DHX sound.”

$52 mil for conversions

According to Della Casa, the circuit intends to invest some $52 million in the next two years in converting several hardtops into multiplexes.

“I think the trend toward declining admissions has turned around, and the market will slowly recover some of its former strength. The trend toward more multiplexes is inevitable. Italy has the potential to be the third or fourth biggest market in the world,” Della Casa says.

Cinema 5 is currently involved in negotiations to take over the management of the 25 Mondialcine cinemas in Rome, the capital’s largest. Management, but not ownership, of the circuit would be ceded by Vincenzo Romagnoli for 25 billion lire ($21 million), a price the Cinema 5 topper says is far too high. A coalition of other distribs, not anxious to let Cinema 5 walk away with a hammerlock on Roman exhibition, is also bidding to manage the Mondialcine circuit.

Right now, there are only three bona fide multiplexes in all of Italy. But if admissions continue to increase by at least 4% per year, as they did in 1990, maybe more exhibs will find it’s worth it to make an investment in their theaters rather than see them turned into garages or fast-food joints.

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