Italian boxoffice falls, prospects better

Analysts say results skewed as 2007 was a bumper year

ROME -- The Italian boxoffice contracted for the first time in five years in 2008, but analysts said the end-of-year performance could signal good news for the industry.

The cinema monitoring company Cinetel reported Thursday that 12-month boxoffice figures were worth 594.1 million euros ($813.9 million), down about 3.9% compared with 2007's record year. Total cinema attendance was 99.4 million, a 4.1% drop compared with the previous year, when film attendance topped 100 million for the first time since 1978.

But despite the erosion in attendance, figures were still far stronger than in 2006, and analysts saw reasons for optimism.

"Remember that 2007 was a banner year for the cinema industry in Italy, and that's what 2008 is being compared to," said Gilberto Hass, an entertainment and media analyst with ABS Securities in Milan. "The year also ended strongly, which is always a good sign. The results from January and February will say a lot about whether the trend will continue."

Cinema attendance for December as a whole was nearly flat compared to the previous year. But for the key 16-day holiday period that includes the two weekends around Christmas and New Year, it actually rose 2% to 62.1 million euros ($85.1 million), led by "Natale a Rio" (Christmas in Rio), which was the year's top film, raking in 17.6 million euros ($24.1 million).

Italian newspapers speculated that attendance rose as the economy weakened because the cinema represented a relatively low-cost form of entertainment.

Italian films, meanwhile, continued to claim an ever-larger part of the overall boxoffice. Italy produced five of the year's top dozen grossing films and claimed 27.7% of the overall boxoffice, compared with 26.9% a year earlier -- mostly at the expense of films from other European countries and Asia. The U.S. remained the sector's powerhouse, expanding to 60.3% of the overall market, up from 55.4% in 2007.

The U.S.-Italy hold on the boxoffice was nearly complete: Not only did they control a combined 88% of the overall boxoffice, but they combined to produce the year's 38 top-grossing films.