Consolidation in the exhibition sector is expected to continue on a global scale with the imminent changeover to digital projection marginalising opportunities for medium-sized operators, Dodona Research predicts.

The analyst has launched a database, Exhibitor Rankings - which lists almost 300 exhibitors operating 20 screens or more spread across more than 50 countries.

It has shown that the largest acquisitions have most recently occurred outside of the US, against the trend at the start of the decade.

While rapid consolidation in the US in 2000-01 was sparked by a wave of cinema chain bankruptcies, focus on merger and acquisition activity has now shifted to international markets.

South Korea has been the most active market, spearheaded by local circuits Lotte Cinema and CJ CGV, which have expanded rapidly since 2004.

Other significant consolidation has included Spain's Cinebox, which merged with the Cines Abaco chain; central Europe's Palace Cinemas, which most recently acquired Intercom cinemas in Hungary; and Thailand's Major Cineplex, which absorbed the country's second largest exhibitor, EGV Entertainment, in 2004.

In Australia, however, two circuits, Village Roadshow and Hoyts, have divested the bulk of their overseas cinemas to focus on domestic markets.

Canada has seen the most radical change since the start of 2000. A series of transactions saw Loews, which owns the Cineplex Odeon circuit, fragment while its Canadian cinemas combined with Galaxy.

The combination's subsequent acquisition of former market leading chain, Famous Players (a Viacom company) was followed by a series of cinema sales demanded by Canada's competition authorities. Many of these cinemas were sold to Empire cinemas, which caused its screen count to more than double.

However, the US exhibition sector still proves to be dynamic with a rapid organic growth from new theatres - Rave Motion Pictures has more than doubled in size to move from the 50th largest circuit worldwide to 28th while Southern Theatres catapulted into the rankings at 48th place.

The largest circuits are US-based Regal Entertainment (6,369 screens), North and South American exhibitor Cinemark (4,645), AMC Entertainment (4,638), Carmike Cinemas (2,399) and, the largest European-based circuit Odeon UCI (1,754).

Latin America's largest chain, Mexican-based Organizacion Ramirez Cinemas comes fifth with 1,661 screens while Asia's biggest exhibitor is Japanese film company Toho comes in at 17th place with 563 screens.

According to Dodona, 64 companies operating 200 or more screens now own 31,855 (29%) of all screens worldwide compared to 51 companies with 29,747 screens in 2004.

Dodona managing director Karsten Grummit said: 'We think that the medium-term impact of the changeover to digital projection will benefit the largest circuits, at the same time as creating opportunities for innovation and even new theatre formats among more imaginative small circuits and independents. It is harder to see what is in it for medium-sized operators, so we expect the steady trend towards consolidation in the industry to continue.'