The roll-out of digital cinema and the growing threat of piracy are to be among the chief talking points when industry delegates convene in Las Vegas for ShoWest 2003.

With domestic admissions reaching record levels in 2002 and the relatively low 2.5% hike in ticket prices compared to other entertainment sectors, the annual convention comes at a time of resurgent optimism among exhibitors. "For movie admissions, which is the most important statistic for theatre operators, last year was the strongest year since 1957 - we sold more than 1.6 billion tickets in the US [excluding Canada]," John Fithian, president of exhibitors' body the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), told Screen International.

Fithian, who will deliver the industry address with Jack Valenti, said the figures boded well following the traumatic nationwide theatrical expansion that began in the late 1990s and left several chains facing bankruptcy. "The key for me in 2002 was that even though it was a strong year we didn't rush out and increase screen count." There were 35,592 screens located at 6,134 sites by the end of 2002, compared to 35,459 screens at 6,327 sites by the end of 2001.

While uncertainty still hovers over the delivery of digital projection - politicking over who will foot the bill is still unresolved - Fithian sounded a cautiously optimistic note when he said that there could be significant implementation within several years.

Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI), the joint venture between the studios and exhibitors, had made "substantial progress" toward a standardised technological platform, which he said was necessary before roll-out.

"There are still additional questions that need to be answered, but whereas at previous ShoWests we were viewed as the naysayers, now we can be much more optimistic that this is going to happen."

However, he warned the process could take up to 30 years before the transition was complete and acknowledged the need for international co-ordination. "We've got 35,000-plus screens but worldwide you're talking about 130,000, so there's a whole dynamic that has to be addressed."

By the end of 2002 there were an estimated 161 digital cinema installations at 143 locations around the world (according to Screen Digest). This represents just over one-tenth of one per cent of all first-run cinema screens in the world.

In addition, half of all digital cinema installations are in North America, with all but four in the US - with the remainder fairly evenly distributed between Europe, Japan, Latin America and especially China. Digital cinema is growing faster in China than in any other territory, on the back of plans by the China Film Group to have a digital network of 100 cinemas in place by end 2004.

DCI's Chuck Goldwater will make a presentation on International Day (Mar 3), when other scheduled keynote speakers include Yang Buting, CEO of China Film Group, and Mark Zucker, senior executive vice president of Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International, which passed $1bn in international ticket sales last year.

Turning to piracy, Fithian said: "I'm hopeful we can work something out. We are going to talk about a combination of solutions. I don't think the tide will be turned through legal mechanisms alone and we have to find a way to teach students that stealing a movie from the internet is the same as walking out of a store with a DVD in your hand without paying."

A panel discussion is planned with studio chiefs and Wang Ziqiang of the National Copyright Administration of China and Fithian added a proposed public service trailer campaign was due to go out to focus groups.

Overall, Fithian described the mood among exhibitors as "very good", noting ironically that the gloomy state of global politics was a lucrative time for exhibitors. "One of the reasons we did so well last year was people needed a break and we don't see that changing any time soon."