After a period of sustained growth, the European box office is heading for its second consecutive year of stagnation.

With Germany last week recording a slump of 13.3% for the first nine months, this year's box office in all five of the big European markets is expected to be more or less flat (see country by country list below for full figures).

After nine months, box office is actually down in most cases, but a potentially strong final quarter means analysts still predict a recovery, leaving the continent either slightly up or down on 2002.

The blame for this year's poor tally is being heaped on the films themselves. Market shares for locally-made films rose during the first six months in Germany, Spain and Italy, but it is a different story for US fare. The year of the sequel has failed to inspire audiences from Munich to Madrid.

"The key problem is that there haven't been enough films attracting audiences," says Ricardo Gil, marketing director for Spain and Portugal of UCI/Cinesa. "I'm not just talking about big titles but also mid-sized titles."

This lack of hits is just the start of a catalogue of woes. Some problems are one-offs, such as Germany's summer heatwave. As the thermometer soared in July, year-on-year admissions did indeed plummet by over 33%. Nevertheless, that is not the whole story. When temperatures fell in the third quarter, admissions still slid 12.1% compared with the same period in 2002.

Rolf Baehr, a board member of the German Federal Film Board, has a lengthy list of reasons, some temporary, some longer term, including: "The relatively weak line-up of films, particularly from the US, the record-breaking summer [temperatures], the general economic recession and the increase in film piracy."

Soberingly, the recent boom in screens has failed to offset such factors. Spain is struggling despite more than 100 screens opening this year, while Italy is flat despite a 9.6% increase in the number of screens.

Maybe cinemas are not in the right locations. Walter Vacchino, head of Italy's exhibitors association Anec, cited the poor distribution of cinemas across the country.

"Italy needs a new law to regulate the opening of cinemas and spread screens out more evenly across the country," he said.

But despite the gloom, most countries are banking on a bumper final quarter, and just as the films were blamed for the downturn, so they carry hopes for an upswing. With Finding Nemo, The Matrix Revolutions and The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, 2003 may yet turn out to be a year of two halves.

"It is as yet too early to say whether the downward trend will be confirmed by full-year results," says Susan Newman-Baudais, an analyst at the European Audiovisual Observatory. "The last quarter is traditionally one of the strongest periods in many major markets."

Karsten-Peter Grummitt of UK-based analysts Dodona Research agrees, arguing that this is not necessarily the end of a period of growth. "I think it is going to be a blip," he says. "The end of the year looks strong and that will be sustained into the start of next year."

Once Europe's biggest market in terms of admissions, Germany slumped again in the first nine months of this year by 13.3% compared with the same period last year. According to figures released last week by the German Federal Film Board, box office dipped from $791.9m (Eu673.6m) to $686.7m. The 102 million tickets sold between Jan 1 and Sept 30 signal the end of a sustained period of growth and take the total tickets sold below 1999, when 104.9 million admissions were registered in the same period.

Spain is on track to end the year well below 2002's total box office of $735.8m. According to the Ministry of Culture, the haul from Jan 1 to Oct 24 this year is $535.4m, which looks certain to mean an end to more than a decade of steady growth. Admissions for the year until Oct 24 were just shy of 99 million, which means the year total looks set to fall well below 2002's 141 million.

Audience numbers so far this year are static, according to the latest data from Cinetel, which surveys around 75% of screens in Italy. The overall rise of just 0.2% is all the more surprising after a strong start to the year, when the first quarter saw a 4.4% rise compared to 2002. In contrast, however, admissions dropped 22% in October, compared with the same month in 2002.

France expects to sell 175 million tickets this year, a drop on last year's 184.5 million. As of last month, overall box office was down 5.6% compared with 2002, according to the National Cinema Centre (CNC).

The UK box office is expected to be flat this year, either slightly up or slightly down on 2002's UK box office of $1.14bn. The total box office for January to September was $955.7m (£564.9m), down from $996.5m during the same period last year, according to Nielsen EDI. If the UK does plateau, it would end four consecutive years of admissions growth and two consecutive years of rising box office revenues

(Martin Blaney, Melanie Rodier, Jennifer Green and Nancy Tartaglione contributed to this report)