CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/CINEMA - Blockbusters have helped to make cinema a growing medium

Doom and gloom may dominate media headlines at the moment, but last week cinema proved itself an exception when the Cinema Advertising Authority released figures showing that admissions in 2002, at 176 million, were the highest they've been for 30 years.

The surge in attendances and the sheer variety of movies attracting significant audiences have served to broaden the medium's appeal beyond the old 15- to 34-year-old bedrock. And that, in turn, has broadened cinema's appeal to a bigger and more diverse range of advertisers. Car manufacturers and financial services advertisers are taking the medium more seriously, along with an increasing number of FMCG advertisers.

Sarah Moran, the head of cinema at Universal McCann, points out: "Advertising in cinemas has increased massively in the car sector, year on year. Also there are more brands out there, more clothes, financial services, technology and mobile phone companies." She adds: "More advertisers are attracted to cinema, although it's still a relatively small medium, taking up only approximately 1.6 per cent of the total adspend in the UK, but it is on the increase."

Adam Mills, the joint sales director at Carlton Screen, agrees: "In light of the rest of the media world, cinema advertising is growing across all sectors. Five years ago, we wouldn't have carried one car advertiser, largely because of the age group of the viewers, but over the past two years, car advertising has become our biggest category."

And for bold advertisers, the opportunities to make cinema commercials work harder off screen are growing. Moran says: "We are given the opportunity to exploit creatively, off screen, by using things such as product placement in foyers, popcorn packaging, ticket backs and competitions." She cites Mini as an example, which parked cars in cinema foyers.

So why have admissions soared? The popular theory is that the hard-working "generation X" is looking for some escapist downtime. Of the CAA's top ten films last year, only Die Another Day and Ocean's Eleven offered any semblance of real life, whereas the remaining films were riddled with aliens, monsters, animated figures and witches.

Post-11 September, with war looming and recession taking hold, the public is, unsurprisingly, seeking the escapism of the big screen experience.

"There are all sorts of social changes that have encouraged people to go to the cinema and it is also far more available now due to the increase in multiplexes," Moran says. "This rise is mainly because of the run of amazing films released in 2002. Lord of the Rings is a classic, therefore it has massive appeal."

Mills agrees: "I think the top films are taking focus away from social problems we have, but it is dangerous to pigeonhole people's reasons for going to the cinema. There are also more art-house type venues and films emerging. Cinema is packaging itself for a wider audience. Cinemas have vastly improved as places to visit. They also provide a relatively cheap night out, with the average price still being less than £7."

The good news is set to continue. Media strategists believe that now big brands have begun dipping their toes in cinema advertising, their competitors will follow.