Cinema admissions in Italy tumbled a sharp 29.4% in February 2002 compared to last year, marking the third consecutive monthly drop during what is traditionally one of the busiest periods at the box office.

According to data released by national data body Cinetel, 6,849,000 tickets were sold in February 2002, a month which saw an inordinately large number of films released (including Black Hawk Down, Heist, America's Sweethearts, Vanilla Sky and Mulholland Drive) as well as a large number of Italian titles, but few that have taken off at the box office.

Significantly, revenues for the top four films released in February were down 33% on earnings for last February's top four, when hits ranged from Italian sleepers The Last Kiss and Ignorant Fairies, to Hannibal, Meet The Parents and Chocolat.

Overall, a massive 2,862,000 fewer tickets were sold in February 2002 compared to last year, with both traditional one or two-screen cinemas and multiplexes faring equally badly. The fall marks the third monthly drop in a row for Italian admissions. In January, figures were down 17.7% against the 2001 and in December admissions dropped 10.68% from 2000.

Most worryingly, says Giorgio Van Straten, head of Italian entertainment body Agis, is the failure of Italian films so far this year - which range from Silvio Soldini's Burning In The Wind to Marco Bechis's Figli-Hijos - to attract any real business.

Among other reasons cited for the fall-off were: the continuing growth of home entertainment, a rise in some ticket prices, competition from the country's first bingo halls (under a government plan a large number of old cinemas are being transformed into bingo halls), the sunny weather which has kept Italians outdoors, and a large number of football games shown on prime-time TV.

Nevertheless, Italy's short box office season, which still extends only from September to May, remains the industry's main bone of contention, with both big and small titles suffering from a general rush to get films out onto the big screen. "Distributors have to make an effort not to release all their potentially big films during the same period," Von Straten said.