ROME — Since the dawn of cinema, Italy’s torrid summers have made outdoor movie showings under the stars a favorite entertainment choice of the season.
Even the first Venice Film Festival, in August 1932, was held on the terrace of the Hotel Excelsior at the Lido, the island just off the center of Venice.
But this year, several nonprofit cultural and social organizations have struggled to get their summer film festivals going after film distributors refused to rent them many requested titles, from the Harry Potter series to “BlacKkKlansman” to “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The reason? These nonprofit organizations screen films for free, even as Italy’s fabled film industry is reeling with many theaters closed because of the coronavirus.
“We use cinema as an instrument of social cohesion, to try and build community and have a nice time together,” said Luca Sansone of the Laboratorio di Quartiere Giambellino Lorenteggio, a group that shows free films in a Milanese low-income neighborhood “where people don’t go to the movies because it costs too much.”
Normally the Milan open air initiative screens 10 films during the summer. This year, it will show only four, after five distributors for Universal, Warner Bros., Disney, 20th Century Fox and RAI Cinema refused to issue rights to films that Mr. Sansone’s organization had chosen with input from local residents, he said.
“The distributors told us that if we show them for free, they can’t give us films,” he said.
But those in the business say that the pandemic dealt such a blow that it put the survival of Italy’s film industry at risk, and that giving unfettered free access to films would only make matters worse.
“We lost more than 30 million tickets and more than 200 million euros in takings, just in box office receipts,” not to mention the loss of income from food concessions and other revenues, said Mario Lorini, president of ANEC, the association of cinema owners who control the country’s 4,000 movie screens.
Film industry operators note that the free initiatives receive public funding or have sponsors.
The stalemate is the latest chapter in a conflict that started heating up two years ago.
It has also affected other groups that screen free films throughout Italy, including one that travels through small central Italian towns struck by recent earthquakes, and a Roman association that began by showing films in the capital’s trendy Trastevere neighborhood and now runs two other venues.
Distributors denied so many films to “Piccolo America,” the Roman association, that it was forced to scrap retrospectives featuring the films of Sergio Leone, Katherine Bigelow and Francis Ford Coppola, said Valerio Carocci, the association’s combative leader.
Mr. Carocci and other organizers accuse ANEC, the association of cinema owners, and ANICA, the National Association of Cinema and Audiovisual Industries, of conspiring to undermine the free programming.
The accusation triggered an investigation by Italian regulators that became public last month when the police raided offices in Rome. The ongoing investigation seeks to determine whether these associations engaged in anticompetitive behavior, breaching an EU law, or an Italian one.
The clash over summer film is playing out against the backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak and its economic ramifications. Like countless other sectors, the film industry and its players, from filmmakers to movie theater owners, have been left gasping ever since Italian cinemas shut their doors on March 8, shortly before the national lockdown.
Even though cinema theaters were given the green light to reopen on June 15, only 540 cinemas have reopened under new safety and social distancing guidelines limiting such indoor spaces to 200 people. Many cinema owners say they cannot break even under such rules.
The pandemic hit just a year after film industry associations and the culture ministry began promoting year-round movie attendance under the banner “Moviement.”
It worked, Mr. Lorini said: Theaters, traditionally closed during the summer, stayed open. And film attendance went up 45 percent between June and August 2019, boosting the industry’s annual revenues by 14 percent, despite new streaming services entering the Italian market.
“We came from a good period of revitalization, and had a good sense of the future,” Mr. Lorini said.
Despite subsidies from the Italian government to combat the pandemic’s effects, cinema owners are still struggling.
And the organizers of the free summer festivals say they are collateral damage, unable to obtain the titles that they had sought. Mr. Carocci said distributors had denied the rights to more than 150 films that he had asked for.
A request for Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” for the Guarimba Film Festival in the Calabrian seaside town of Amantea was one of around 60 titles that the organizers asked for but did not get.
“We wanted to bring movies that weren’t so known here,” said Giulio Vita, the chief organizer of the festival. “We’re talking about quality films, not unfair competition.”
“No one in Calabria goes to the cinema when it’s 50 degrees Celsius outside,” he added. Though many cinemas are now air-conditioned, traditionally Italians haven’t made them the summer hangout spots that they are in the United States and elsewhere.
The distributors accused of denying access have mostly remained mum about the dispute.
Representatives of Universal declined to comment. Representatives of Warner Bros. did not respond to request for comment. Representatives for the state broadcaster, Rai Cinema, and its distribution arm said they had granted rights for all films more than three years old.
Others in the industry said that costly investments into making films need to be valued, and compensated.
“It’s an error to propose culture and cinema at zero cost,” Alessandro Giacobbe, chief executive officer of Academy Two, a Genoa-based distribution company. “Especially this year, when cinemas have been closed for months and the industry in trouble,” he said.
“The message that has to pass to the public is that films should not be seen for free, that unless you pay for culture, it will die,” Mr. Giacobbe said.