US buyout firm theBlackstone Group has acquired the UGC UK and Ireland cinema circuit.

The deal is understood tohave been completed on December 1, with a reported price tag of around £200m.

UGC is the third largest operator of cinemas in the UK, with 408 screens in 42 cinemas.

Lawrence H. Guffey, a senior managing director of Blackstone, said: "This latest transaction re-affirms our commitment to the UK cinema market, which we continue to believe offers attractive growth prospects.

The UGC acquisition is the latest in a line of deals affecting the UK exhibition industry.

In October, Blackstoneacquired British cinema chain Cine UK (Cineworld). Earlier in the year, Guy Hands' TerraFirma venture capitalist firm bought both the Odeon and UCI groups of cinemas.

Blackstone is thought tohave beaten rival venture capital-backed exhibitor Vue Entertainment to the UGC deal.

Some industry observers have expressed surprise at the latest VC acquisitions of existing and/or ageing stock, questioning the expensive option of market share over medium-term profitability. Other exhibitors, including the reclusive National Amusements' Showcase cinema operation, are believed to be actively developing new city-centre sites in conjunction with major retail operators.

Blackstone's latest deal makes the group the second largest cinema operator in the UK, after Terra Firma and ahead of Vue.

Some observers note that Vue remains an acquisitive company, in addition to moderate development plans of its own in the UK, and that smaller, niche operators, like the recently expansive Apollo theatres group, are likely to become future targets.