A marked optimism for cinema's prospects in 2004 wasevident among UK exhibitors and distributors who attended last week's 7thNational UK Cinema Industry Conference in London (March 18).

Good news for the UK industry came in the first sessionwhich looked at areas such as marketing, audience tastes and the admissionsblip of 2003.

Tomas Jegeus, senior vice president of internationalmarketing for UIP, put 2003's marginal fall off down to the quality ofthe product, "The only reason admissions were down last year is that thefilms weren't that great. "

Jegeus added" "When the films are good theaudience will keep coming and admissions will keep growing. There's no questionabout that."

Box office levelled off in 2003 after several years ofstrong growth. A number of films failed to perform as expected, including TheHulk, Legally Blonde 2, Tomb Raider 2, Charlie Angels 2 and Bad Boys 2.

Statistics provided by Taylor Nelson Sofres' (TNS) AudioVisual Trak showed the dip was largely caused by a lack of 'light' cinemagoers.The service takes a panel of 15,000 people aged between 12-74 which preciselymirrors the UK population both regionally and demographically, as well as anadditional 1,000 'heavy' film consumers aged 16-34, to determine film watchinghabits across theatrical, retail, rental and pay-per-view.

Considering 'light' cinemagoers as those attending 1-3 timesa year who go to films such as Calendar Girls and Love Actually,statistics showed a marked decline from 66.7m to 57.4m from 2002 to 2003. A hotsummer combined with disappointing titles and the lack of a HarryPotter film were blamed for this.

The outlook for 2004 is more optimistic, however. Thepresence of films such as Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban,Spider-Man 2, Shrek 2 and Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason is likely to keep attendance buoyant according toJanet Smith, head of marketing at UCI Cinema UK and Ireland.

Smith singled out a strong start to the summer suggesting"May could be the busiest month on record" thanks to the likes of VanHelsing, Troy and The Day AfterTomorrow. This would be reflected worldwideas all three films go out virtually day-and-date - Van Helsing launches in all but three territories on the sameweekend.

Admissions figures could also benefit from the partnershipannounced last month between the UK film industry and mobile-phone giantOrange. This allows Orange customers to claim two-for-one tickets everyWednesday at virtually all UK cinemas from March 31.

Other figures from TNS' Audio Visual Trak spelled outinteresting retail trends. While nearly 20% of people bought a film they hadalready seen at the cinema, an average of 80% plus across all genres would buya title they had not previously seen. Comedy and thriller titles proved thestrongest cases where 85% and 86% respectively of people said they boughttitles sight unseen.

Smith, echoing many in the audience, suggested that ifpeople were willing to pay £15-£20 to buy a film they hadn't seenthen there was a clear untapped potential for getting these people into thecinemas at a far lesser price.

Other sessions looked at the issues facing exhibitors ingetting premises up to required standards before 1995's DisabilityDiscrimination Act comes into effect on October 1. There was also ademonstration of Audio Descriptive technology to aid blind andpartially-sighted peoples' enjoyment of cinema. There are 8.6 milliondisabled people in the UK with a £50bn per year discretionary spendingability.

The third session dealt with digital cinema technology andthe advantages and disadvantages in updating cinemas to digital projectors.

The conference was organised by Landor Conferences and heldat BAFTA.