UK cinema admissions are at their highest level since 2002, according to figures released by the UK Film Council today (January 19).

Admissions in 2009 rose to 173.5m from 164.2m for the previous year and just behind the 2002 record of 175.9m. The increase was driven by the success of international blockbusters such as Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince, Avatar and The Twilight Saga: New Moon.

According to the UKFC, the total UK gross box office for 2009 was $1.5bn (£944m), up 11% on 2008. Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince was the highest grossing film of the year taking $82.9m, (£50.72m), followed by Avatar, which has taken $67m (£41m) to date, and Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs on 35.2m. Three of the year’s top five films – Avatar, Ice Age 3 and Up – were 3D releases.

The UKFC figures also show that UK production spend was up last year to £1.6bn (£956.9m), compared to $1m (£613m) in 2008, and inward investment has reached its highest ever level at $1.2bn (£752.7m). It compares to $582.8m (£356.8m) in 2008 and tops the previous record of $1.9m (£1.15bn) in 2003.

However, the level of domestic independent film production is down from 77 projects in 2008 to 71 in 2009; with a total spend of $276.2m (£169.2m), whilst co-productions remain consistently low at 22. The number of co-productions has steadily decreased since 2003, when there were a record 106. The fall has been attributed to the current UK tax credit, which discourages involvement in co-productions by focusing entirely on production spend on UK soil.

The UKFC figures show the overall market share of “UK” films, (which, within the UKFC’s definition, includes films produced with US backing) was 16.5% in 2009. Independent UK films enjoyed their highest market share for a decade at 8.5%, which are largely due to the success of Slumdog Millionaire and St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold and In The Loop.

John Woodward, CEO of the UK Film Council said: “British cinema-goers are voting with their feet – they want to see big event movies, many of which depend on outstanding British talent and are made in the UK thanks to our reliable film tax credit. In addition, what is particularly encouraging is that the public appetite for low budget independently-produced British films is rising once again despite the blockbuster phenomenon.”