Italy promises phonepix

Mobile content getting new guidelines

A wireless wake-up call is ringing loudly in cell phone-crazy Italy.

While the Independent Film & Television Alliance is busy hammering out guidelines for rights deals for cell phones and other wireless devices, the country seems to have taken a rash leap into the void.

Italo exhibs recently pulled “The Interpreter” from cinemas, shrieking at the prospect that the Nicole Kidman starrer could become available as a mobile phone download while still playing on local screens. It did not.

Now theater owners are again gearing up for guerrilla action after Italian mobile operator Hutchison 3G Italia announced that “Memoirs of a Geisha” could be on offer to its 5.8 million customers as early as Dec. 27.

That possibility is highly unlikely as well. So why is it even being bandied about? It stems from a rather dubious deal. Three months ago, prominent distributor Eagle Pictures and H3G inked a multiyear, multimillion euro agreement under which H3G was to get a package of firstrun pics lucratively priced at E200,000 ($236,000) to E500,000 ($590,000) per title, with a mere 12-day window.

Eagle — which according to sources was eager to capitalize, prior to being placed on the market with merchant bank Rothschild acting as its advisor — does not seem to have pondered too closely the matter of whether it actually held wireless rights to product. The distrib — which did not return calls from Variety seeking comment — last week issued a statement saying it does not hold wireless rights to “Geisha” and consequently could not have sold them to H3G.

It is unclear what titles Eagle did sell H3G, and whether they were even specified. The two companies are litigating the matter in a Milan court.

Meanwhile, other Italo industryites have been vowing to exercise caution to avoid similar mishaps.

“Wireless rights to firstrun movies at present simply do not exist,” said RAI Cinema topper Giancarlo Leone. “As much as we’d like to tap into new revenue streams, we simply can’t sell rights that we don’t yet have,” the exec added, speaking at a packed Rome confab aptly titled “Cinema and Phones: A Convergence or a Clash?”

The spat, meanwhile, has caused a flareup of pre-existing shrinking-window gripes, prompting local exhibs’ org Anec to demand a fixed four-month window from producer and distributor orgs.

The issue of movies on phones has become prematurely prominent, with local funnyman Roberto Benigni blasting the thought as “bordering on blasphemy” and other industryites wondering whether it can be good for business.

“Mobile phones will never be a viable platform to distribute feature films,” opined Buena Vista Italy topper Paul Zonderland at the confab. “But they can be a great promotional tool for teasers, trailers, gadgets and pre-sales,” he added.

Besides claiming it intends to become the world’s first company to offer a firstrun movie on a phone — at a cost of E9 ($10.50) for an unlimited number of viewings in a week’s time — H3G has been very active on the TV front.

The Hong Kong-based group recently pacted with Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset to distribute content, including soccer games, to its customers. And last month it became the first foreign owner of an Italian terrestrial digital TV license when it invested $259 million to buy small TV channel Canale 7.

“Apart from Finland, Italy is the most advanced country in Europe’s mobile TV industry so far,” says media analyst Augusto Preta, prexy of Rome’s Italmedia Consulting, which has just issued a report on the prospects of Europeans watching TV on their phones.

“However, for both Italy and Europe, we don’t expect significant figures for some years, both in terms of revenues and users,” added the analyst, who says European mobile TV revenues will reach a mere $15 million next year but grow to a mouth-watering $1.2 billion by 2010.