Buoyed by local hits, the UK box office rose 5% last year. Andreas Wiseman analyses the numbers.

The UK box office crossed $1.5bn for the third consecutive year in 2011. Total receipts rose 5% year-on-year to hit $1.7bn, fuelled by a combination of Hollywood blockbusters and impressive local product, a summer devoid of major sporting events or good weather, and a marginal rise in ticket prices.

The UK cinema business proved relatively resilient despite a backdrop of economic austerity in the UK, a rise in online home-entertainment services and worrying levels of film piracy.

According to the Cinema Exhibitors’ Association (CEA), attendance reached an estimated 171 million for the calendar year — 1.8 million more visits than in 2010 and the second-highest tally in the last five years. The number of theatrical releases reached an all-time high at 577 (not including alternative-content titles).

The six Hollywood studios accounted for 74% of the market, with Warner Bros’ Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 easily the market’s biggest film on $112m — and the third biggest film ever in the territory.

“We set out 18 months ago with the intention of making 2011 the year of Potter. We wanted it to be the movie event of a generation,” says Josh Berger, president and managing director of Warner Bros Entertainment, UK, Ireland and Spain. “It was the most ambitious movie campaign we’ve ever launched. That’s what set it apart. Potter exemplified more than any other campaign the power of lifecycle marketing — a carefully crafted campaign across all our businesses and relationships with media and retail owners. And the launch event was unique, of course. It saw 35,000 fans congregate in and around Trafalgar Square and at regional premieres.”

The UK also saw two record-breaking performances from local independent films. Momentum Pictures’ Oscar-winning drama The King’s Speech ($70.1m) and Entertainment Film Distributors’ summer smash The Inbetweeners Movie ($69.1m) now rank as the first and second-highest grossing UK independent films ever in the territory.

‘We set out 18 months ago with the intention of making 2011 the year of Potter’

Josh Berger, Warner Bros

“2011 was a buoyant year,” says Mark Batey, president of the Film Distributors’ Association, “driven by a huge wave of product. In a time of fierce competition and austerity, the big story is the high-water mark for British film. And it goes beyond the phenomenal performances of the top three films. The story was even richer than that. Films like Arthur Christmas, Senna, Johnny English Reborn, Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, Paul, Jane Eyre, We Need To Talk About Kevin all did well. It was a rich mix of ambitious and smart UK films.”

More than $460m of the 2011 box office came from UK productions and co-productions. For the second consecutive year, Warner Bros claimed the largest distributor market share with $319.1m (18.44%). Paramount Pictures International replaced Fox with the second-largest market share, grossing $280.6m (16.22%), while Universal posted the biggest year-on-year improvement among the majors in third place on $209.6m.

Entertainment scored the highest box office among independents, grossing $117.1m from 22 films, while StudioCanal (formerly Optimum) was the most prolific distributor with 42 releases.

Digital expansion continued, with the CEA estimating roll-out at “more than 70%”. Alternative content genre accounted for an estimated $15m.

However, despite accounting for a healthy $375.6m of overall revenue, 3D market share was down 5.9% year-on-year, at 21.5% from 48 films.

“3D still accounts for £1 in every £5,” says Batey. “The 3D performances of special-effects driven, immersive tentpoles such as Harry Potter, Transformers and Pirates Of The Caribbean prove that audiences still choose the option where it is available on the right film. In 2012, there will be at least another 33-34 feature films in 3D. It’s not going anywhere.”

The UK accounted for 20.8% of the European box office, up 0.7% on 2010.

Unless stated, the 52-week figures in this story and tables opposite relate to the period January 7, 2011 to January 5, 2012.