Cinema attendance in ireland, already the highest per capita in Europe, could show even further growth this summer with releases as strong as Sacha Baron Cohen's latest film, Bruno

It may seem unusual for a company executive to revise business forecasts upwards when most other industries are waiting for the slide to bottom out. But that's what Eithne Billington, sales director with Carlton Screen Advertising, has been doing all year. In fact, she has been doing it since last autumn.

Carlton Screen advertising tracks cinema admissions for this country and the business is booming. In May, admissions were up by 12.2% in the Republic on the same month last year, which means a phenomenal 1.4 million tickets were sold at the box office in a single month.

Traditionally the cinema claims to be a "product-led" business and the product, or at least an aggressively marketed version of it, was available in May. We had a succession of what Hollywood calls "tentpole" or high-profile franchise releases. X-Men: Wolverine, Star Trek and Angels And Demons were followed by Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian and Terminator Salvation. The giant display hoardings in railway stations and the strip advertising on the sides of buses seemed to be changing every few days. Star Trek rebooted the venerable Paramount Pictures franchise and drew enthusiastic reviews as well as the best box office for any film in this sequence so far, while Night At The Museum also did its job, bringing out the family audience.

But May is not a rogue month by any means. It has been a good year generally for the cinema and it may turn out to be a record year. Admissions in the Republic were up significantly for four of the first five months of 2009. In April, Carlton Screen Advertising registered an increase of 22.7%, up from 1,144,320 in 2008 to 1,403,712 this year. In January , when the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire was riding high, admissions were at 1,733,719, up from 1,699,866 for the same month the previous year.

The only black spot was March, when numbers were down largely because Easter fell in March last year and the popular In Bruges, with its Irish stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, was released in that month.

Why is this happening? Well, like the economic downturn itself, it is part of an international trend. In America, where cinema production and distribution policy is set, domestic revenues are up 9.5% to $4.53bn and admissions have increased by a healthy 6% so far this year. In January and February, the North American box office was up 13% and cinema admissions rose by 10%.

Film industry trade papers have speculated that part of the reason for this was an improvement in off-peak releasing. The studios, flush with product from the days when hedge fund money flowed into Hollywood, needed a place to put their films, and audiences welcomed them.

In the past four years, private equity money was easily and widely available to filmmakers, creating a surplus of films and forcing studios to rethink their long-established release patterns. The availability of so much product forced Hollywood to do something to which it had always paid lip service – create a genuine year-round calendar where high-profile releases are available at times that used to be considered box office dumping grounds; that essentially means outside Easter, summer and Christmas.

One much-discussed example of this was the French-made Liam Neeson thriller Taken, which was released in Europe to indifferent reviews and a weak box office before it opened in North America around Christmas. Taken was a revelation in the States. Not only did it open well, it took root at the box office, remaining in the top ten for two months and ultimately grossing $124m.

For the first time ever, three films – Taken, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino and the comedy Paul Blart Mall Cop – took more than $100m at the North American box office between 1 January and 28 February of this year.

Film industry analysts have always held that there is a broadly inverse correlation between cinema attendance and the economy. The period of the Great Depression is most often cited – 60 million people went to the cinema every week in the US to escape the spirit-wearying anxieties of their daily lives. The best year for admissions in modern times was 2002, the year of Harry Potter, Lord Of The Rings and the Star Wars sequels, but also a year of rising unemployment internationally in the wake of the dotcom bust.

In 2002, admissions peaked at 1.6 billion in North America and they are expected to get back up to at least 1.4 billion in 2009. In Ireland, Eithne Billington says there is no doubt the downturn is contributing to a rise in ticket sales.

"As the highest per-capita cinema-goers in Europe, Irish people love the movies anyway. But in these times of economic recession, where everyone is being forced to tighten their belt, the cinema is more popular than ever. The reason – it offers a couple of hours of escapist entertainment at a relatively cheap price. And the product is generally very good at the moment."

She believes that the product could even be stronger in the second half of the year. No matter what critics think of it, Transformer: Revenge Of The Fallen will be a big draw this weekend and while we had no Harry Potter in 2008, he will be returning on 17 July as the Hogwarts saga nears its climax in Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince. Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, the already controversial Bruno, the remake of The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three and Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds are all expected to buoy the box office further over the next two months.

There has been an enormous revival in the popularity of 3D in the past year and that is expected to continue as more cinemas prepare to show 3D films and titles like Up, James Cameron's Avatar, A Christmas Carol and Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs all come on stream. There is expected to be a scrap for the Mamma Mia/ Sex And The City audience with the comedies The Proposal and The Ugly Truth and the remake of the musical Fame coming out.

"At the risk of sounding like a character from Groundhog Day, we do expect 2009 to record the highest admissions ever in Ireland," Billington adds.