The UK exhibition sector is moving towards more of an even keel after the uncertainty of the last couple of years, with industry consolidation beginning to stabilise a rapidly saturating market, according to a new report.

Fears that the UK cinema industry could face a US-style meltdown because of over-expansion were partially headed off during 2001, which saw both an increase in attendance figures - up from 2000's 143m to 156m admissions - as well the beginnings of a slowdown in expansion and some decisive pruning.

While multiplex openings continued apace in 2001 - 25 new sites were added to an already maturing market - last year also saw the beginning of large-scale cinema closures.

According to the 'Cinemagoing 10' report from film industry analysts Dodona Research, some 44 sites with 123 screens saw their lights switched off last year, which compares with the closure of 24 sites and 46 screens in 1998.

At the end of 2001, there were 3,488 cinema screens operating in the UK and Ireland, nearly 500 of which were in Ireland.

Most closures are still of traditional high street cinemas, with more than 80 such screens closing during each of the last two years. As a result, two out of every three screens in the UK is now in a purpose-built multiplex of five screens or more.

Significantly, according to Dodona, there remain opportunities in the UK for further cinema development - albeit on a much smaller scale than the growth witnessed in the UK in the late 1990s.

While many of the larger UK cities are overscreened, some of the UK's smaller markets still have potential, and development is shifting from major cities to smaller towns.

Dodona also highlights the ongoing changes in the make-up of the UK cinema marketplace, and cites changing audience demographics as a factor for future growth.

While fewer over-35s attend cinemas regularly than any younger age group, the percentage that do amounts to 4.55m people. Hence, 36% of people aged 35-plus are regular cinemagoers, compared with 27% of 15-25 year-olds.

An absence of films that appeal to this market is one of the most important, though often unrecognised, reasons behind years when the overall level of admissions disappoints, the report says.

Dodona points to national films as appealing to older audiences, with films such as Billy Elliot finding 62% of its audience among those over 45.

Says the report: 'It is now a truism in marketing that, not only are older people becoming more numerous, they are also staying younger longer: cinemas need to latch onto this trend.'