With distributors now braving the Italian mid-summer, Italy's box-office prospects are heating up. Sheri Jennings reports.

The Italian exhibition sector is looking strong, with a 23% year-on-year increase in box-office revenue for the first quarter, and an impressive slate of summer blockbusters still to come.

May ushered in Spider-Man 3 and Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End, which have taken $24m (EUR17.8m) and $20.7m (EUR14.6m) respectively, and June will see Ocean's Thirteen, Transformers and Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer. But it is the arrival of Warner Bros' Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix on July 13 that is creating the biggest stir.

A long-held disagreement between local exhibitors and Hollywood distributors, as well as the hot climate, meant Italy was often overlooked for releases between mid-July and late August. But now relations have thawed and the studios are changing their release patterns.

'If we release (Harry Potter) in July, then there (should not be) any more problems to release films in the summer time,' says Paolo Ferrari, president and CEO of Warner Bros Entertainment Italia. 'That time of year is hot, but 70% of the city population now remain in the city.'

The last blockbuster to be released in July in Italy was Mission: Impossible II (July 7, 2000), which made $13.3m (EUR10m), outgrossing the other two editions released in May and September.

Meanwhile, local films are proving popular with exhibitors, taking 34.7% of market share for the first five months thanks to the likes of Love Manual 2 and My Brother Is An Only Child ($8m). Local exhibitors are also making great strides with the number and quality of their multiplexes. In the 1990s, Italy could count 123 screens in the multiplex category - now they have almost 1,500. This has encouraged others to upgrade their facilities.

'Traditional cinemas have reacted and are now refurbishing and updating their technology,' says Nicola Grispello, Warner Village Cinemas' director of programming and film relations.