How can international films make a mark at the Italian box office in 2011 when local films tackling timely subjects are dominating?

This year was barely underway when the Italian film industry stood back in awe to watch returns for local comedies skyrocket. The trend had picked up steam through 2010 when nine of the top 10 films independently distributed were Italian, of which eight were either comedies or comedy-dramas. But when Medusa’s What A Beautiful Day became the highest grossing local film of all time after just two weeks on release this January it was clear the trend was far from over. 

In fact, in the first eight weekends of 2011, a contingent of local films, mostly comedies, took an unprecedented 63.4% bite out of the box office pie. Six Italian films took the top slot over nine straight weekends.

‘What is working are really superb specialty films, big event movies and Oscar-type films’

Maria Grazia Vairo, Eagle Pictures

Italians need some light relief. Faced with the largest public debt in Europe, recent statistics also reveal Italian youths to be the “most inactive” on the continent while lurid scandals featuring the embattled premier Silvio Berlusconi and an underage Moroccan belly dancer have hit overdrive and dominated the headlines, dragging political debate in the country down to a new low.

But the box office success is not simply down to national low morale. The films themselves are well-crafted releases.

“These are high-concept films and reflect what is happening in Italy,” says Rudolph Gentile, co-founder of Moviemax and CEO of M2 Pictures, a newly launched independent distributor with an eye on the 14-24 demographic. “It’s always a matter of quality. Movies are great if they are commercial and have a message inside and keep your attention 100%.”

Two of the biggest successes of 2011 have storylines reflective of the Berlusconi scenario. Rai Cinema-Fandango’s Whatsoeverly is about a rogue politician with a tagline that loosely translates as:  “Without a dream but hot for some tail.” Released on January 21, it has grossed $22m (€15.7m) to date and is Rai’s best local performer ever. Medusa’s What A Beautiful Day is about a security guard who falls for a Moroccan woman plotting to blow up a statue on Milan’s Duomo. It has earned a massive $60.4m (€43.3m) since opening on January 5.

‘These are high-concept films and reflect what is happening in Italy’

Rudolph Gentile, M2 Pictures

The Italian box office grew 17% year-on-year in 2010. In the first two months of 2011, local titles helped the overall box office hold its own for the same period year on year, dipping only 7% from $269m to $250m, with admissions dropping only 0.02%.

That is not too bad. After all, Avatar was on release in the same period in 2010.

During January and February, the international titles that broke through the Italian dominance were Clint Eastwood’s supernatural drama Hereafter, and the best-film Oscar winner The Kings Speech.

“What is working are really superb specialty films, big event movies and Oscar-type films,” says Maria Grazia Vairo, head of acquisitions at Eagle Pictures. “And 3D doesn’t show signs of getting weaker.”

However, she notes, US romantic comedies — once sure winners in the territory, earning $4.2m-$8.4m (€3m-€6m) — are no longer slam-dunks. Films such as The Accidental Husband, with Uma Thurman and Colin Firth, released by Eagle in November 2010, a hot cinema-going period in Italy, took just $1.6m while Did You Hear About The Morgans? with Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant grossed only $2.6m.

As for arthouse titles, Stefano Massenzi, head of acquisitions for Lucky Red defines that market as “difficult at the moment”. However, the company did very well with I Love You Phillip Morris which grossed $2.9m (€2.1m), while Bim Distribuzione’s The Concert earned a healthy $5.3m (€3.8m) at the box office.

The US studios and international indie distributors should not despair. The focus will now likely shift back to imports, as local blockbusters are traditionally released in the first and third quarters of the year.

Italy top 10 films, Jan 1 - Feb 28, 2011

RankTitle (origin)DistributorBox office gross ($)
1What A Beautiful Day (It)Medusa$60.4m
2Whatsoeverly (It)01 Distribution$22m
3Immaturi (It)Medusa$20.5m
4Women Vs. Men (It)Medusa$15.2m
5La Banda Dei Babbi Natale (It)Medusa$11.5m*
6Hereafter (US)Warner Bros Italia$10.7m
7The King’s Speech (UK)Eagle Pictures$7.1m
8Tron: Legacy (US)Walt Disney SMPI$7m
9Little Fockers (US)Universal Pictures International$6.8m
10Natale In Sud Africa (It)Filmauro$6.3m*

*Released in 2010. Chart reflects only 2011 gross.

Italy’s leading indie players


Italy’s market leader produces and distributes local films, buys about 10 titles a year and is a prominent European co-producer. It prefers commercially solid titles, often director-driven, and has snagged the latest films of Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen. Medusa is part of the Mediaset empire: the broadcaster also has a 49% stake in The Space Cinema, one of the two leading Italian exhibition chains. 

Contact: (39) 06 663901;


The distribution arm of Rai Cinema also produces and distributes local projects, and acquires third-party titles. 2010 was a good year for 01, with local hit Men Vs Women, as well as pick-ups The Ghost Writer and The Tourist. 01 will release Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life in 2011.

Contact: (39) 06 684701; 


Eagle scored exceptional results in 2010 with The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and Step Up 3D and was the seventh most successful distributor in the territory. 2011 has kicked-off well with The King’s Speech andSanctum 3D. Recent pick-ups include The Dinosaur Project and Mandate’s Limitless.

Contact: (39) 06 3269101



Known for innovative marketing campaigns, Moviemax made waves last year with Saw 3D ($7.5m) and Law Abiding Citizen ($6.6m). 2011 releases include Shelter, Animals United 3D and Dylan Dog: Dead Of Night.

Contact: (39) 06 36006760



It might only buy one or two films a year but they tend to be big, ensuring Filmauro is one of Italy’s 10 biggest distributors. Paranormal Activity grossed $9m for the company in 2010.

Contact: (39) 06 699581



Lucky Red distributes and co-produces quality arthouse cinema. 2011 releases will include Machete, The Kids Are All Right, Made In Dagenham and Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place, starring Sean Penn, which it co-produced.

Contact: (39) 06 3759441



Bim can spot a potential Palme d’Or, Venice Lion or Berlin Bear winner. And it is expanding its slate in 2011 to include mainstream titles such as Piranha 3D which will sit alongside Gregg Araki’s Kaboom and Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg.

Contact: (39) 06 3231057



An arthouse distributor with a roster of projects from European directors including Susanne Bier, Francois Ozon and Thomas Vinterberg. It is co-producing Bier’s All You Need Is Love.

Contact: (39) 06 80693760



Videa has an eye for international gems and its 2011 slate includes Four Lions, L’Age De Raison and The Woman In Black.

Contact: (39) 06 331851



One of Italy’s most established arthouse distributors, Archibald is set to release Danis Tanovic’s Cirkus Columbia and Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff in 2011.

Contact: (39) 06 85304753;


While larger distributors release most of his films such as Loose Cannons, Gomorrah and Whatsoeverly, the distribution arm of Domenico Procacci’s Fandango production outfit releases selected indie features and documentaries. 2011 releases include The Hunter, the documentary Sons Of Cuba and The Housemaid.

Contact: (39) 06 852185