The state of the industry is robust, declared Motion Picture Association Of America president and CEO Jack Valenti at exhibition conference ShoWest yesterday. Despite the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, the economic recession and the traumatised exhibition sector, "2001 was the greatest box office year in film history," he said.

In his annual state of the industry address, the colourfully eloquent Valenti said that admissions in North America in 2001 reached 1.5bn, a 5% increase from 2000 and a 30% increase from 1991. "It was the largest ticket-buying total since 1959," he added.

Meanwhile total receipts stood at $8.41bn, an all-time record fuelled by a record 20 films grossing more than $100m at the domestic box office and a record five crossing the $200m watershed. "Some predicted that theaters would soon be empty, that Americans would shun the movie experience and stay home to nurse their raw and abused nerve edges," he said. "But that did not happen. Americans, even in a time that tries their souls, will not be cabined and confined in their homes. Going to the movies is the American remedy for the anxieties of daily life."

Valenti also had good news on the cost of major studio film production. According to figures reported to the MPAA by its seven member companies, the average negative production cost of a film was down 13% from 2000 to $47.7m from $54.8m. That figure, he said, includes co-productions between studios, a side effect of the new fiscal caution in Hollywood, in which case the studios in question reported 50% of the budget each. Similarly, if a studio accesses co-financing from an international source, the full budget of the film is included, not just the portion paid for by the MPAA member company.

The seven member companies are MGM, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros.

But P&A costs were up once again. The average cost of releasing a major studio film were $31.01m, up from $27.31m in 2000, an increase of $3.7m. Nevertheless the total average cost of making and releasing a studio movie was $78.71m, down 4% from 2000. Valenti called the numbers "a most welcome piece of fiscal arithmetic."

Valenti reported that 27% of all moviegoers in 2001 were judged "frequent" moviegoers, that is those who see at least 12 films a year, and account for a massive 82% of admissions. 60% of moviegoers are either frequent or "occasional" (meaning seeing between two and 11 films a year) attendees.

Notable statistics in the audience breakdown was the increasing power of the over-40 moviegoing crowd, which accounted for 31% of all frequent moviegoers. Still leading the market were 12-24 year-olds which represent 42% of frequent moviegoers and third was the 25-39 age group with 27%.

Per capita attendance was 5.3 films a year, still the highest in the world, according to Valenti. "But," he said, "if you exclude from the per capita population those who are not moviegoers, that is, those who don't see at least one movie a year, the per capita viewing rises to 8.6 films a year."

Valenti was joined by John Fithian, president of the National Association Of Theatre Owners (NATO), who pointed to overseas attendance records in the UK, Germany and France in parallel to the domestic ones.

Fithian said that all but one of the US cinema circuits which had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection are now out of bankruptcy. He added that the domestic screen count is falling from its over-saturated high of 37,000 in the 90s to 35,459 in 2001. "Admissions went up and screen count went down," he said. "Taken together, those trends are fueling an economic recovery in American exhibition."

But Fithian appealed to Valenti and the studios on two counts - to make more family movies and to reduce concentration of marketing spend on a film's opening weekend. He said that of the 20 films which grossed over $100m last year, only three were rated "R" while 67% of all films rated were rated "R". And while he said that the exhibition community was partially to blame for opening weekend "front-loading" because there are too many screens to fill, he urged the studios to work with exhibitors in lengthening the runs of movies in theatres after the opening weekend bonanza.