In what has been branded as 'one of the worst years ever' for Italian films at the local box office, national film body, Anica, said that while overall takings increased last year, the box office continued to be heavily dominated by US fare and suffered from a low number of medium-to-high Italian earners.

While total box office for the year grew 5.5% to $402m (L805 bn), Italian films only managed to score $70m, compared to the $88m earned in 1999 - a 20% slump in takings, Anica said. Meanwhile US films grossed $280m, a 42% rise on 1999 when they earned $197m.

In 2000, 738 Italian titles received a theatrical distribution, against 342 US films. France was third with 67 films, followed by Great Britain with 66 films.

The annual market share for Italian films fell to 17.5% against 24% in 1999. Anica said it was the first time since 1993 that the Italian share had fallen below 20%. US films represented 70% of the total market share, up from 53% in 1999.

The overall performance of domestic product was disappointing considering the runaway success of homegrown comedy Ask Me If I'm Happy (Chiedimi Se Sono Felice), which grabbed the year's number one position within two weeks of its December 15 release. In fact, so huge was the comedy's success that it helped overturn end-of-year results, which had been down 2% at the end of November on the previous year's figures. Other holiday releases which helped the upswing were The Exorcist - The Director's Cut and Dinosaur.

Commenting the year 2000 figures, Anica president Fulvio Lucisano said that in spite of the local comedy's success and the strong results posted by auteur films such as Italy's Oscar candidate Hundred Steps, Malena and sleeper hit Bread and Tulips, Italy still lacks both local box office hits and medium-to-high earners.

Only 17 Italian films earned more than $940,000 [L2 bn] (compared to 15 films in 99) only 8 earned more than $2.35m, and 2 earned around $5m, leaving as undisputed king Ask Me If I'm Happy which has grossed over $38m.

Lucisano said he believes the key to improving Italian box office results lies in focusing more strongly on more commercially-oriented auteur films, and not just on Italian comedy as has often been the case in the past.

Along with the drop in the Italian market share, Anica's figures also showed that the total share of European films slumped. In particular, while the French share almost doubled to 6% in 2000, the share for British films slipped from 14% to just 3.3%.