"It doesn't get a whole lot better than this."

That was the message to delegates attending Cinema Expo in Amsterdam from distributors unveiling what has been a well-received array of product - much to the relief of embattled European exhibitors.

"There is a higher than normal degree of anticipation," said Richard Segal, CEO of UK circuit Odeon Cinemas. "The product reels leave me feeling very encouraged, and the number of big films coming down the pipeline are, on paper, reaching new highs."

Animated product was particularly well received by delegates at the exhibition conference, now in its tenth year. Highlights included Fox's computer-animated Ice Age, scheduled for Easter 2002, Columbia Pictures' Final Fantasy and Buena Vista International's Monsters Inc, scheduled for spring 2002 and Lilo And Stitch, scheduled for summer 2002. The latter, a story of a Hawaiian child and her alien pet, had unfinished scenes screened, which blended animation and storyboard pencil sketches.

Expectation was also high for the remaining 2001 product, such as Planet Of The Apes, Harry Potter, Lord Of The Rings and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which closed the event last night.

And seasonal release windows for 2002 are quickly filling up for exhibitors, with the summer already looking hot. "It's going to be an historic summer for us and the industry," Fox Entertainment's Jim Gianopulos told exhibitors, referring to next summer's Star Wars/Minority Report double whammy. "It's the first time anyone will have had a George Lucas and a Steven Spielberg [film] within a month. It doesn't get a whole lot better than this."

"I can say without any shame that 2002 will be our biggest year ever," said Mark Zucker, senior executive vp of Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International, which for summer 2002 is readying Spiderman, Stuart Little 2 and Men In Black 2. "I know we're all going to cash in on this great line up."

Exhibitors were not only optimistic about the frequency of large tentpole titles inked on schedules over the next two years, but also about the knock-on effects they could have for cinema attendance overall. "The big challenge in the UK is to increase frequency of visits," said Odeon's Richard Segal. "And there's a good succession of tentpole movies. There's no reason why people won't see trailers and return."

The prospect of a banner year for product is a major relief to European exhibitors, still learning the lessons from the meltdown in the overheated US market. "It's great to be in a country where the exhibitors are not going broke," quipped The Animal star Rob Schneider at Thursday's Columbia TriStar lunch, where he was the recipient of an Excellence in Comedy presentation.