Coming soon - city centre cinema boom

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IN A spate of cinema-building unprecedented since the war, more than 500 new screens are to be built in Britain in the next four years, bringing the total to more than 2,500 - the highest since the mid-Sixties.

The Australian-based firm Hoyts plans 150 screens within the next four years at 15 multiplex centres.

It has already identified sites in London, Liverpool and Wolverhampton and its first multiplex site at Dartford, Kent, is due to be completed next summer.

Clearly, more than a century after William T Rock first charged customers 10 cents to watch a flickering moving image at the Vitascope Hall in New Orleans, the magical lure of the cinema remains strong.

"We certainly believe there is a lot of potential in the market in Britain," said a spokeswoman for Hoyts yesterday. "The cost of opening cinemas in Britain is higher than elsewhere so we have to be pretty confident.

"We believe that the multiplex approach, where there are cafes and restaurants at suitable sites will continue to be a draw.

"And we do believe there is still room for a lot of growth."

Odeon Cinemas, a division of Rank Leisure, and the largest chain in Britain with 77 theatres (more people went to an Odeon cinema last year than to a professional football match) is also planning to open a number of new theatres. It is opening five multiplex sites this year with a further 25 over the next five years.

The company is spending millions of pounds refurbishing its cinemas, many of which are in the high street. It believes the experience of supermarkets that have opened smaller stores in city centres as well as their suburban malls proves out-of-town is not the only way to go.

Other companies, including Warner Village - a joint venture between Time Warner and Village Roadshow - and Virgin are also reportedly planning to open new theatres.

The revival of cinemas in Britain since the mid-Eighties is well-known, but the speed at which the market continues to grow has surprised many.

Karsten Grummitt, of specialist consultants Dodona, said recent research suggested that, on average, each Briton visits the cinema either twice or three times a year.

"There are many in the industry who want to raise that figure to US levels of around five times a year," he said. "But there are signs that the market there is reaching saturation point."

The company has estimated that last year's admissions total of 139.5m could increase to 185m by 2002, which is an average of three cinema visits per person each year. This would still be a fraction of those who flocked to cinemas in their heyday, however. In 1946, people averaged 34 visits a year, at a time when there was not the competition from clubs, televisions, computer games and other home-based entertainment.

The revival of the cinema industry in Britain has been attributed to investment in the theatres, better marketing and the development of US- style multiplex sites, the first of which opened in 1985.

These sites now account for 50 per cent of all visits. Better seats, easier parking and more films have all helped to boost attendances from a record annual low of 54m in 1984.

Yet some believe the film industry has also helped itself. Adam Smith, features editor of Empire magazine, said: "I think the industry has done a lot in recent years to try to improve the situation.

"Nowadays we have certain blockbuster films which everyone feels they have to go and see.

"The best recent example of that was Titanic, which people felt they had to see if they were not going to be left out of conversations with their friends. Fifteen or 20 years ago, given a few exceptions with films such as Star Wars, that was not the case.

"The marketing of films is much more professional and it is increasingly aimed at the teenage market, particularly the boys.

"The industry is still very, very strong and it will continue to be as long as it can still deliver a good night out with films people want to see."