Millions more flock to flicks

A sharp 35-per-cent rise in film audiences in just the first three months of this year shows that British cinema is continuing to revive.

Figures released yesterday by the British film industry suggest that the enormous success of British-made films, such as Trainspotting, which is based on the cult Irvine Welsh novel, and Emma Thompson's version of Sense and Sensibility, acted as a key factor in this growth.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that 32.2 million cinema tickets were sold in the first three months of the year, an increase of more than a third on the 22.5 million admissions during the same period last year and a three-month record for British cinema admissions since quarterly figures began in 1989.

This success is likely to have been boosted still further by National Cinema Day on 2 June, when the offer of cut-price tickets marking the 100th anniversary of the cinema attracted more than 1 million people.

Tony Slaughter, of the British Film Institute, said that the organisation was delighted with the figures and looked forward to an annual total of 150 million admissions in the near future, as the film industry adapts to please the market. "There are now better films, they are better marketed and we are delighted that there is a higher UK presence among them," Mr Slaughter said.

The latest results are a world away from the situation only 10 years ago when old-fashioned and ill-kept cinemas were the preserve of hardened film buffs and hormonally charged teenage couples.

The film was under siege from the growing popularity of home video recorders, cable and television. Annual attendance figures were down to 54 million.

In 1985, as it languished in the doldrums, the cinema industry fought back with the first multiplex opened in Britain. This offered wide screens, restaurants and comfortable seating.

Technological advances in film-making have also served the industry well. The movie revival was born on the back of blockbuster films such as Terminator, Die Hard and Blade Runner. Television could not compete.

As a result, in the last decade audiences have doubled to 120 million. Young people are among the most avid cinemagoers, with 72 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds going at least once every three months. The number of screens at the same time increased from 1,271 in 1984 to 1,971 in 1994. Cinema attendance has gone up by more than 300 per cent.

The resurgence pushed annual turnover in Britain's 470 cinemas to more than pounds 100m

The cinema chains are not relaxing however. They are constantly looking for new ways to expand their audiences.

Last year the MGM/Cannon chain introduced Indian films in a defensive strategy against the threat of out-of-town multiplex centres. The Indian film industry produces more films than does Hollywood, and has a strong following among British people of Indian origin.

The group had also launched a price war against the rival Odeon chain.

This year the growth continues with pounds 105m cinema-expansion plans expected to create another 1,500 jobs: Warner Bros plans to build 15 multi-screen cinemas across Britain.

Two new Warner cinemas opened earlier this year in Croydon and Watford. Another three at Dagenham, Harrow and Finchley in London will start this year and a further 10 are expected to open in 1997.

David Cole, of Rank Organisation, which owns 75 Odeon cinemas nation- wide, said that the latest attendance figures reflected the national trend. "The films have been strong this quarter and there has been a noticeable upsurge," he said.

The family film, which was not previously recognised as a money-spinning sector of the market, has burgeoned, with movies like Jumanji, Toy Story and Babe specifically targeted at younger viewers.

British-made films have also done their bit in recent with a string of successes, including Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Crying Game, The Madness of King George and Shallow Grave, as well as this year's big successes.

Sense and Sensibility, Thompson's production of the Jane Austen novel, starring a big-name British cast that included Hugh Grant, is another film that is credited with encouraging many people back to the cinema. "It brought a lot of people out of hiding and hopefully they will re-establish a cinema-going habit," Mr Cole said.

He said a summer of blockbusters, including the new Walt Disney version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Independence Day, a special-effects spectacular, starring Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum, should enable the trend to continue.

The top 10 films in the UK

1 (1) Up Close and Personal (pounds 350,710) US

2 (2) Now and Then (pounds 228,591) US

3 (3) From Dusk Till Dawn (222,391) US

4 (4) The Juror (222,342)US

5 (9) Fargo (130,955) US

6 (4) Vampire in Brooklyn (121,614) US

7 (-) How to Make an American Quit (pounds 89,980) US

8 (5) Spy Hard (pounds 83,078) US

9 (7) Secrets and Lies (pounds 71,530) UK

10 (8) Muppet Treasure Island (pounds 63,440) US/UK

Charts supplied by "Screen International". Figures show individual grosses for last week.