Despite new data showing that ticket sales have remained virtually the same in the first half of 2003 compared to the same period last year, Walter Vacchino, head of national exhibitors union ANEC warned that there are "serious problems threatening the vitality of a large number of cinemas in Italy" - notably the industry's continued failure in the summer to meet spectators' demand.

According to data released by Cinetel, which covers 75% of the market, 43.18m tickets were sold between January 1st and June 30th 2003. This marks a 0.12% dip on the same period last year, when 43.23 tickets were punched at the box office.

But the months of May and June were particularly gloomy and caused the semester average to drop considerably, compared to the first few months of the year, when ticket sales had actually been up 2.58%, Cinetel said.

"The overall stability of the Italian market shows that spectators want to see films. This is even more obvious if you look at the month of June, when in spite of the lack of a blockbuster such as last year's Spider Man, many films in the top 10 have had bigger average earnings than last year's equivalent pictures," Vacchino said.

But as temperatures in Rome soared to 35 C, Vacchino said he was disappointed about the "drought" of films released in Italy this summer.

"The drought this summer has also hit cinemas, and unfortunately a flow of new pictures is still far away. Yet again, one can only be frustrated by another lost opportunity," he said.

Vacchino added: "Furthermore we cannot be reassured by the overall market data because there is still a big difference between the growth of offer, in terms of screens and days of programming, and the number of tickets sold. This means that if you look beyond the general stability the new data shows, there are very serious problems that are threatening the vitality of a large number of cinemas in Italy."

Vacchino's comments come just days after Alberto Francesconi, head of national entertainment body AGIS, charged that never before had "the Italian government paid so little attention to the entertainment industry."

"The government's global fund for entertainment (FUS) amounts to around Euros 500m - when by way of natural progression, it should be around Euros 750m or 800m," Francesconi argued, calling on politicians to push through reforms of the FUS as soon as possible.