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Admissions in Italy are down about 10% to 55 million for the first half of 2011, while the market for local pics is up about 10% to a whopping roughly 40% share. This spells tougher times for international indie pics, especially classic arthouse titles, but even arty genre fare. Take Nicolas Winding Refn indie darling “Drive,” which recently pulled $2.2 million via 01 Distribuzione at the Italo B.O., substantially less than in Gaul or the U.K.

There are exceptions, of course. Medusa has done respectable biz with Roman Polanski’s “Carnage,” which drew $4.3 million after its Venice bow. By contrast, Italians cold-shouldered Steven Soderbergh’s biohazard thriller “Contagion,” which made a mere $2 million via Warner Bros. after its Lido bow.

Theatrical, these days, is ever more crucial. “TV buys fewer movies; homevideo is in a crisis and alternative platforms aren’t taking off,” Filippo Roviglioni, prexy of Italy’s distribs said at a recent confab dedicated to specialty distribution.

For classic arthouse titles difficulties are compounded by dominance of two multiplex chains, the Space and UCI, each with roughly 300 screens. Neither loop shows films in its original language. Meanwhile, smaller-city screen facilities are shrinking in numbers with strictly arthouse screens now accounting for 16% of the Italo market.

That said, Italy has a nationwide arthouse exhibition loop of 80 theaters and about 200 screens, called Circuito Cinema, which ensures an outlet for commercially viable specialty imports.

Besides indie imports, Circuito Cinema is also a godsend for non-mainstream local pics that have been performing better than in the past. Case in point is Paolo Sorrentino’s “This Must Be the Place,” which launched Oct. 14 in both arthouses and plexes bowing at No. 2, after Paul W.S. Anderson’s 3D “The Three Musketeers,” pulling a strong $1.9 million in its first frame via Medusa. Italian product is really going strong these days. Seven out of the top 10 box office draws for the 2011 cinema season are Italian comedies, led by Medusa’s “Che bella giornata” (What a Beautiful Day), a mildly politically incorrect Islamic-terrorism-themed laffer starring TV comic Checco Zalone as a Milan security guard with the hots for a sexy Arab who’s an aspiring terrorist. In January, “Day” scored more than $60 million in Italy, beating “Life Is Beautiful” as the country’s all-time local hit.

Number of screens: 3,200
Number of 3D screens: 800
Top indie distribs and B.O.: Medusa ($167 million); RAI Cinema/01 Distribution ($88.2 million); Eagle Pictures ($67.6 million)
Top exhibition chain for indie films: Circuito Cinema
Typical minimum guarantee paid: $82,000
Typical gross split for theatrical: 52% for the distributor, 48% for the exhibitor the first weekend
Top five indie titles: “The King’s Speech” ($11.8 millon); “Limitless” ($5 million); “Love and Other Drugs” ($4.8 million); “Carnage,” $4.4 million; “The Tree of Life” ($3.7 million)
Upcoming indie pickups: “Pina” (BIM Distribuzione); “One Day” (BIM Distribuzione); “The Ides of March” (01 Distribuzione); “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1” (Eagle Pictures)