Hollywood readies for Italian summer

Modern plexes raise confidence in box office pull

Italian auds will soon be getting their first Hollywood summer in a distribution breakthrough, which is expected to fire up box office growth all year- round.

Beach-blessed Italy has in the past always been blighted by a dearth of pics in the sunny season, which were considered too risky for big launches.

And being out of sync with Western European summer release patterns meant a pileup come September, which caused a bloodbath in 2006 for both studio pics and domestic product.

This year, Italians have gotten or will get the latest installments of “Spider-Man” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” as well as “Ocean’s Thirteen,” “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” and the fifth “Harry Potter” day-and-date with the rest of the Western world, which should eliminate the Hollywood glut in the fall and give all product greater screen life through 2008.

The onslaught of summer tentpoles is estimated by exhibs to be worth at least a 10% boost in Italy’s total 2007 grosses, on top of the current 23% surge that is driven by local product.

“This is shaping up to be a potential 30%-35% growth year for the Italian box office, which is massive,” enthuses Warner Village Cinemas chief programmer Nicola Grispello.

Warner Bros.’ decision to roll out “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” in sweltering July, Italy’s prime holiday period, is considered to have been instrumental in prompting the other majors to go all-out as well.

“We know that we are running a small risk, but Italian vacation schedules aren’t what they used to be,” says Warner Bros. Italia topper Paolo Ferrari.

“I think we can prove that Italy has summer moviegoers on a scale comparable to other major European territories,” opines Ferrari, who is also head of Italy’s motion picture association Anica.

There are, of course, some holdouts, most notably “Shrek the Third,” which Paramount is releasing in late August, and “The Simpson’s Movie” which Fox is releasing in September.

Unlike its neighbors, until the mid-1990s Italy was still a nation with a majority of single-screen hardtops, most of which were not air-conditioned. But more multiplexes have since materialized to now account for more than 60% of screens.

As the country got more plexes, exhibs started putting more pressure on the majors to stop the summer holdout, considered a root cause of the country’s underperforming box office — $670 million in 2006, compared with $850 million in Spain, $1 billion in Germany and $1.4 billion in France.

But while the studios have made sporadic attempts in the past — UIP released “Mission: Impossible 2” in July 2000 — until the upcoming summer, the majors had mostly balked, claiming big releases were just too risky because too many Italians were at the beach.

Last year, several Hollywood pics that were summer fare elsewhere underperformed in Italy’s fall. Released in September 2006, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” pulled in $26 million in the country, compared with $38 million in Spain and $64 million in Germany.

The autumn tentpole logjam also cannibalized runs of more arty titles, including Italo pics launching at the Venice and Rome fests.

“It is absolutely fundamental for everybody that we have at least an 11-month year,” says Fox Italy topper Osvaldo De Santis, who nonetheless remains skeptical about Italo launches in July.

“This summer is crucial, because if it fails, then from now on in Italy, it’s really going to be ‘Back to the Future,’ ” he says.

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