After years of struggling to book high-profile releases during summer months, Italy finally offers a complete roster of films including blockbusters, family, horror, comedies, local and auteur-driven films between May and August. Sheri Jennings reports on distributors’ high hopes riding on this Italian summer.

Italian distributors and exhibitors will tell you it’s been nothing short of an uphill climb. With more than 10 years of dedication to building infrastructure, and of tug of war between local exhibitors and US distributors and more recently with producers of local films, 2010 will be remembered as the one year Italy finally offers a complete roster of films including blockbusters, family, horror, comedies, local and auteur-driven films between May and August.

“Finally we are like other European countries,” says Richard Borg, president of Universal Pictures Italy. “Even Greece is releasing in the summer.”

For years, Italy got one or two blockbusters per season. It’s been a step-by-step process. First came the multiplexes in the late 1990s. Product trickled in through May and June, and halted until the end of August.

Thomas Ciampa, director of sales and distribution for Warner Bros Italy, previously bought films for Warner Village Road Show here and knows the saga from both perspectives. He says it took years of convincing results to get to this point. “When we released Matrix 2 (May 2003) it was 40 degrees [Celsius] outside and we grossed $7.6 mil (E5.7 mil) on opening weekend.”

The 2010 Italian summer season opens with Robin Hood (May 12) via Universal and closes with Shrek4 (August 28) from Universal.

Borg says, “We always prove final results of films released in summer absolutely compare to those released in the winter season, the new frontier is counter programming and testing new dates, particularly those previously considered taboo, that is, July and August.”

Warner Bros made the great leap forward with the first mid-July release ever: Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix in 2007. “All the market was looking at us because it was the most aggressive call made since summer releases in Italy,” says Ciampa. The film grossed $24.9 (E18.6 mil)– dispelling fears that Italians’ preference for the seaside could kill even a Hollywood blockbuster.

Now distributors are virtually clamoring for the previously undesired slots. Disney nabbed July 2 for Toy Story 3 3D. Universal snatched August 6 for the Matt Damon vehicle The Adjustment Bureau. “I am convinced the cities will be packed anyway as no one can afford to go away for more than ten days,” says Borg.

Even auteur films have now been tested, says Ciampa. “Gomorrah and Il Divo were released in May 2008 and earned $13.3 (E10mil) and $6.6 (E5 mil). There is a market for quality films when we need time and word of mouth. Volver was released in May (2006 via Warner Bros) and made $9.3 (E7 mil). That was a fantastic result.”

In soccer-crazy Italy, the World Cup in South Africa (June 11-July 11) will provide an extra test. “It’s a challenge, but we still think there is audience,” Borg says, un-nerved.

Andrea Occhipinti of specialty distributor Lucky Red seems to agree. He’ll release three titles including The Secret In Their Eyes (June 4), Danish gay drama Brotherhood (July 2) and the Cameron Diaz vehicle The Box (July 23).

“It’s not by chance that we are releasing the foreign Oscar winner as counter programming [to soccer] – it’s well adapted for the female public, for one. Summer provides an opportunity. In the winter the films have a lot of competition and can vanish too quickly,” he says.

For teens, Eagle Pictures releases Twilight Saga: Eclipse on June 30. Universal’s Una Canzone Per Te (June 4), is their first summer release of a local title, which Borg describes as a “music movie set in high school with a nice love story” made with the help of MTV. Horror fans will see The Hole 3D via Medusa on June 18.

But in this dollars and cents industry, the million-dollar question remains: What will the economic impact be for Italy’s box office?

Italian box office is currently up 30 percent year on year with the first quarter of 2009. Northern Italian distributor Domenico Di Noia says it’s mathematical. “To maintain the trend and exceed last year, we need all twelve months.”