ROME — Despite a lingering lack of pay TV coin, independent distribs are pretty perky in Italy, where the box office blahs plaguing most of Europe have struck only lightly and auds have shown a healthy appetite for festival fare.

2003 STATS
Top film: “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (Medusa; $24.7 million)
Top indie: “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”
Total B.O.: $623 million
Indie B.O.: $277 million
Total releases: 419
Indie releases: 281
“Around the World in 80 Days” (Eagle)
“The Assassination of Richard Nixon” (Lucky Red)
“The Machinist” (Nexo)
“Million Dollar Baby” (RAI Cinema/01)
“Vera Drake” (BIM)

Titles such as last year’s Palme d’Or winner, Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” which stumbled in most countries except France, have done respectable biz on Italian screens. (“Elephant” grossed more than $1 million in Italy.) More mainstream indie pics, such as “The Barbarian Invasions,” “21 Grams” and “Lost in Translation,” all had robust runs.

Most of the films in this year’s Cannes Competition already have Italian distribution, but buyers will be back on the Croisette in an acquisitive mood.

“At this year’s Cannes there won’t be much to discover, except maybe something from Asia or Africa,” says Andrea Occhipinti, chief of Lucky Red, an arthouse shingle that did well with Venice Golden Lion winner “The Return” and with Golden Globe honoree “Osama.” That said, “As always, I’m after the buzz pic,” he adds.

“You can’t nail the winner every year, but you can certainly try,” says Valerio De Paolis, topper of arthouse shingle BIM Distribuzione, which last year snapped up “Elephant” before it won Cannes’ top prize. “I am basically hoping for one or two finished films that could be surprises, and also two or three projects at script stage for delivery next year.”

The state of film sales to broadcasters remains a sore spot. Italy’s two main broadcasters, RAI and Mediaset, also have theatrical arms (01 and Medusa, respectively) and buy most of their goods direct rather than from local indie distribs. Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia is the only paybox in town and thus pays bottom dollar.

Terrestrial TV continues to be dominated by local series, bumping all but big studio films from primetime.

But the climate for ancillary rights is decidedly better as of late. DVD has finally taken off and last year surpassed theatrical in terms of total revs. A recent release that’s been doing solid biz for indie distrib Eagle is horror pic “Cabin Fever.”