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BUENOS AIRES — In Argentina, rapid inflation is threatening to cool the box office and narrow margins.

Consumer prices are expected to surge as much as 15% this year, deterring attendance as it did in 2005, when 12.3% inflation and a weak slate of films pushed ticket sales down 15% to around 36 million from 2004’s 42 million.

“Inflation is always worrying,” says Bernardo Zupnick, president of local distrib Distribution Co.

Film execs are stepping up efforts to make moviegoing more attractive even on tight budgets, in the hope that attendance will rise 5%-7% this year. They’re also banking on better material than last year, with upcoming releases including “Cars,” “The Da Vinci Code,” “Mission Impossible 3” and a sequel to hit local animated pic “Patoruzito.”

The year has started well, with “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” posting the country’s strongest opening weekend ever, besting former record holders “The Matrix Reloaded” and “Titanic.”

To keep biz up, a main tactic is keeping prices down. Hoyts General Cinema, the leading chain, has extended Wednesday’s traditional half-price night to Monday and Tuesday, as well as for Monday-Saturday showings before 3 p.m. It also has arranged 2-for-1 promos and other discounts via cablers, newspapers and even the city’s train and subway services.

“Only 30% of our clients pay full price; the rest get discounts on tickets,” says Heriberto Brown, general manager of Hoyts in Argentina. “Moviegoing is one of the cheapest outings. It’s cheaper than soccer matches and live theater.”

This pricing policy, he says, has helped Hoyts maintain its 23%-24% share of ticket sales, ahead of Village Cinemas (16%), Cinemark (13%), National Amusements (8.7%) and the indie chains that make up the rest of the country’s 1,000 screens.

Yet keeping down prices has narrowed margins as wages and other costs rise. The average ticket price has risen 23% to 8.50 pesos ($2.77) from 6.90 pesos in 2002; that’s much less than the 70% inflation over the same period. Hardest hit have been distributors, who have seen the cost of advertising, prints and rights keep pace with inflation since 2002.

“We have to concentrate on maintaining a light structure and an efficient business,” says Sebastian Valenzuela, general manager of Village in Argentina.

But the exhib is spending on theater upkeep, promotions and adding technology and services to improve the experience so consumers keep coming back, he says. “We want to position movies as the first choice for entertainment.”

Last year, Village started hiring moms and grandmas as ticket sellers. “They have a quality of attention that can be more helpful to our clients. They are more understanding,” he says.

With continued economic growth, more jobs and less poverty, the country of 36 million could see attendance rise to three to four movies per inhabitant per year, up from one, Valenzuela says. Last year Village opened a nine-plex in one of the fastest-growing districts of Buenos Aires; this year it plans to add two screens at a hardtop outside the city.

On the production side, Telefe Cine is reviving a popular family comedy of the 1980s, betting a cast of TV stars will make it a commercial success. The strategy worked for its “Papa se volvio loco” (Dad’s Come Back Crazy), the second hottest box office draw in 2005.

“Baneros III, todopoderosos” (Bathers III, Superpowers), about friends and a gang of dog thieves, is set for release July 6, the height of winter holidays. With a $1 million budget, the beach laffer is directed by Rodolfo Ledo (“Dad’s Come Back Crazy”) and includes stars of TV comedy “No hay 2 sin 3” (There Aren’t 2 Without 3) and other shows.

Likewise, Pol-ka, a big TV studio, plans to adapt its successful police comedy “Sin Codigo” (No Code) to the big screen, although scheduling problems may delay release until 2007. This year it plans to release Jose Luis Cuerda’s “La educacion de las hadas.” It stars Ricardo Darin, who’s been in Argentina’s hottest B.O. draws of the past decade including “Nine Queens,” “Son of the Bride” and “The Dawn.”

Even if inflation continues to accelerate, film execs tend to brush the threat aside. “This country has been hit by so many crises that if I was scared I wouldn’t ever have made a film,” says Telefe Cine general manager Carlos Mentasti, who filmed “Apasionados” (Passionate People) at the height of Argentina’s economic meltdown in 2002. “We are used to it.”