Italy's reputation as a box-office problem territory has been firmly cemented over the last couple of years - but a stellar start to 2007 suggests it is time for reassessment. It has blasted into the first two months of the year with a record eight consecutive weekends topping the $13m (EUR10m) mark. By February 25, ticket revenues were up 24% year on year.
A little history puts that performance in to perspective. In the stellar year of 2004, the territory's box office hit that mark for only 10 weekends - and even then not consecutively.
With a great start and a summer of promising blockbuster releases, 2007 is being eyed with interest by local industry figures who see it as a chance to alter many hard-set trends that have held up box-office growth. It is also being watched closely, and with somewhat envious eyes, elsewhere in Europe.
The question on everyone's mind is: what is responsible for the massive increase in Italian figures, and is it sustainable'
The first salient point about the upturn is that it has been built on a healthy mix of local and Hollywood product.
The market share for local product has risen significantly, responsible for 38% of tickets between January 1 and February 25, compared with 26.6% for the same period in 2006.
Filmauro's Giovanni Veronesi-directed Love Manual 2 took $25m (EUR18.9m) in six weeks, while Fausto Brizzi's second foray into directing with Rai's comedy drama Notte Prima Degli Esami - Oggi, earned $12.7m (EUR9.6m) in two weeks.
On top of this, one of the big Hollywood hits had a distinctly local link: Italy's brightest directorial talent Gabriele Muccino was in the director's chair for his first major studio film, Sony's The Pursuit Of Happyness. The film was a big hit in the country, taking $20.1m (EUR15.2m), beating its performance in the UK ($18m), Germany ($10m), France ($5m) and Spain ($4.9m). While it is a US title, Muccino's name led exhibitors to say the film had worked as a 'local blockbuster'.
In addition to these top titles, arthouse director Ferzan Ozpetek's (Ignorant Fairies, Facing Windows) latest title Saturno Contro opened with a strong $3m (EUR2.3m) in its first weekend and took the highest screen average over newcomer Music And Lyrics despite the affinity Italians tend to have for romantic comedies.
And there is more to come. March 9 will see the release of hotly anticipated teen picture I Want You (Ho Voglia Di Te) on 400 prints, produced by Rome-based Cattleya. It stars local heart-throb Riccardo Scamarcio and is a follow-up to the teen cult hit Three Steps Over Heaven (Tre Metri Sopra Il Cielo). It is likely to be yet another hit and promises to keep local pictures in the foreground this spring.
'The great years in Italian box office have always seen strong figures from local films,' says Luigi Lonigro, director of theatrical for 01 Distribution. 'Every year we see five, six or seven films that surpass $20m (EUR15m), including the (local) Christmas blockbusters. That we have already seen two of them (The Pursuit Of Happyness and Love Manual 2) means we have a shining start this year.'
Domenico Di Noia, exhibitor and twice president of Fice, Italy's arthouse exhibitors' organisation, agrees: 'Certainly there is a strong desire on the part of audiences to identify with their own actors and stories.'
A strong start
But while things on the home front are buoyant, 2007's jump-start would never have been possible without the abundance of Hollywood product that has found favour with Italian audiences.
January saw some late autumn 2006 holdovers (for example, Casino Royale and The Holiday) along with titles such as Apocalypto, Rocky Balboa and Eragon mixing with December titles that continued to work into January, such as Italian comedy Christmas In New York.
The first weekend of 2007 kicked off at $18.5m (EUR14m). February also saw a series of quality studio titles, such as Night At The Museum, Hannibal Rising and Blood Diamond that helped the box office grow year-on-year by 39%.
'People were at the movies in January and saw the trailers for three or four other good films,' says Nicola Grispello, director of film programming and relations for Warner Village Cinemas.
When assessing box-office performance, it is easy to miss the obvious local factors that can make a significant impact on customer behaviour. And there were certainly outside factors - some habitual, some not - that made an impact on the opening weeks of the year.
As ever, the weather makes a difference, with the cold and rain driving people to the cinema. 'We had very bad winter weather after October, November and December were very sunny and warm,' says Grispello.
The impact of violence at football stadiums on February 2 was also credited with bolstering cinema attendance. When a police officer was killed and 70 people injured in a stadium riot in Catania, Sicily, the government shut stadiums and suspended all Serie A and B games, forcing a football-mad country to look elsewhere for weekend entertainment, including the cinema.
'I can see these conditions really disturb our market, but they are all marginal when there are good movies to be seen,' explains Richard Borg, president of Universal Pictures International Italy.
And 2007 looks like an opportunity to break out of a two-year cycle that had left Italy looking like a real problem territory. After a strong 2004, exhibitors and distributors plunged into despair as 2005 dropped 7% year on year. And while 2006 started well (up 15% in the first nine months), it petered out, finishing on an almost imperceptible 1.8% year-end gain on 2005.
During 2005 and 2006, the industry was casting around for excuses for poor performance. Sub-standard product, out-of-sync distribution, battles over release windows, airwaves dominated by war coverage, the football World Cup (Italy were champions in 2006), the Winter Olympics (the 2006 winter games were hosted in Turin), low teenage population (Italy is Europe's 'oldest' nation), as well as the weather were all cited to explain an underperforming market.
All those factors undoubtedly had an effect but Italy looked trapped in a downward spiral. Last year the European Audiovisual Observatory suggested that emerging markets such as Russia (up 34% year-on-year in 2006) and India (where local product keeps cinema-going buoyant) were threatening to knock Italy, Europe's fifth territory, off the map of major film territories.
The 2007 upswing has come at just the right time to assuage fears that Italy was a territory with just too many problems. The rest of the year will now prove a critical test of the market's strength.
To be fair, the industry has not sat back and accepted its misfortunes and many believe it is now reaping the rewards of its investments in theatres. Nicola Grispello says the Warner circuit has spent 'tens of billions in infrastructure', and cinemas have been upgraded across the country.
'A funny territory'
But while Italy has made the right investments, even Universal's Borg acknowledges the peculiar difficulties Italy faces. In many ways, he suggests its is simply a 'funny territory'.
01 Distribution's Lonigro adds: 'Some 40% of the annual box office tends to come from October to January, while June to August rarely sees more than 13%.'
But this year sees some of the strongest trends that have been holding back the country's box office being broken.
Trend 1 Italian releases are often very out-of-sync with regular distribution patterns. Italy was the 73rd territory to see Casino Royale (one Italian film executive drove home the point, saying: 'I didn't find a 74th territory').
The huge global hit Borat will only be released in Italy on March 2. For that title, the territory is trailed only by India and Venezuela despite the film's participation in the Rome Film Festival last October.
Trend breaker Twentieth Century Fox plans to release Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer on June 15 in Italy, even before it goes to France, Spain and UK in August.
Northern Italian distributor Domenico Di Noia cites exhibitor pressure as the principal reason for the change of approach: 'Before distributors said that films would make money if they were released in other periods (than the normal summer release schedule) and they may well think in that way.
'But there have now been positive examples in past summers to show this logic was wrong.' Di Noia adds that the need to combat piracy is also forcing releases to be standardised across the globe.
Trend 2 Summer titles are normally held back until the last weekend of August or the first weekend of September, leaving a dearth of product in July.
Trend breaker Warner Bros Italia president Paolo Ferrari confirmed last week that Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix will be released on July 13 - virtually breaking the long-held taboo around mid-July releases. No blockbuster of this size has been released at this time of year, when Italians traditionally leave the city for the seaside. Twentieth Century Fox president Alberto Pasquale calls the release pattern change 'a decided step forward ... it's the first summer with interesting products in mid-July'.
The result is that if the summer season is successful, Italy could see an expanded release season and operate on 11 or 12 months per year rather than the usual nine or 10.
Trend 3 In one of the oldest nations demographically in Europe, the fact Hollywood product is geared towards teens - and that older people are less likely to go the cinema - has put pressure on the need to exploit the youth market.
Trend breaker Local producers are deepening contact with a teen-oriented market, based on local stories and casts that turn out blockbuster results. 'Producers have discovered that teenagers go most to cinema and are discovering that if you put together a story for Italian teenagers and it's well-made, you will make a hit,' says Grispello.
What is most encouraging the hope that 2007 will not slide into mediocrity - as happened last year - is this year's summer schedule. There is immense optimism in all international markets that this could be the biggest summer in history.
From May to July, blockbuster titles in Italy include Pirates Of The Caribbean: At Worlds End (May 23), Meet The Robinsons, Ocean's 13 (June 8), Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer (15 June), Flyboys (June 29), Evan Almighty (tbc) and the Steven Spielberg-produced Transformers (July 4).
European productions such as Italian director Dario Argento's long-awaited final film in the Three Mothers trilogy, La Terza Madre, will hit screens on May 25 as will Spanish production Alatriste starring Viggo Mortensen (June 22).
Prime later releases include Shrek 3 (late August), followed by The Simpsons Movie on September 21. September and October will further attract attention with festivals in Rome and Venice.
'This summer will be the biggest in all modern time in Italy,' says Warner's Grispello. 'In Italy, there is still great potential. This year the products seem to be placed better and so the release dates seem to be more accurate and more distant to one another, so every film can be exploited better and local film is increasing a lot.'