THE figures are out, and they make unpleasant reading. The number of Hong Kong movie-goers nosedived to record lows in 1994, continuing a trend which began in 1993 and doesn't look like ending soon. As recently as 1989, Hong Kong had a movie-mad population. A total of 44.8 million tickets were sold in that year, making local audiences the most frequent cinema-goers in the world outside China. Last year, that was down to 29.1 million. Even between 1993 and 1994, there was a drop of 20 per cent in cinema admissions. And the local film industry has been hit the worst. Audiences gave the big thumbs down to Cantonese features last year, with ticket sales dropping from 26.6 million in 1993 to 20.1 million last year. That means the market has shrunk by more than 20 per cent in 12 months - and 33 per cent in two years. Oddly enough, sales for foreign films held pretty firm - down from 9.5 million admissions in 1993 to 8.9 million last year, and part of that can be explained away by the phenomenal success of Jurassic Park in 1993, which is still the territory's top-grossing film at $61.89 million in box-office receipts. For the second year in a row, a Western film was the most popular at the box-office - Speed took $46.43 million last year, which also ensured it fourth place in Hong Kong's list of all-time top grossing films. But the amazing rate of production for Cantonese films continued - 190 Hong Kong films were released here last year, and 31 Mandarin-language features. But Western films crept up too - 163 films in English were screened, with 108 non-English or Chinese titles also going on release. And while the local industry expected the results for 1994 to be bad, the extent of the decline was still shocking to many. Most producers admit the quality of Cantonese features was exceptionally low in 1994 - the money simply wasn't there to make the blockbusters, after a poor year in 1993 and a lack of interest from other Southeast Asian markets, including Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. But they also point the finger at 'rapacious' cinema owners, who raised prices from $40 to $45 in the cinemas dedicated to Cantonese films - while UA and other Western cinema chains lifted some venues to $50. Now it looks as if the prices will go up again at Lunar New Year. Already, some cinemas have been charging $50 for Chow Yun-fatt's God of Gamblers II, on the grounds that it is over two hours long. UA has confirmed that it intends to raise admission at UA Times Square and UA Queensway multiplexes to $55, with the $45 cinemas moving up to $50. And Bill Kong, head of Edko Films, which operates 18 cinemas, confirmed that he will be making a decision within the next week over lifting his prices to $50. The move is to 'cover operational expenses', the cinema-owners say. Peter Tsi, director of the Motion Picture Industry Association of Hong Kong (MPIA), feels this is a backwards step. 'This will hurt the local film industry even more,' he said. 'The theatre owners have a different perspective. They don't think in the long-term.' Mr Tsi admitted that for families, it was 'no longer sensible to go to the theatre'. Pointing to advances in home video equipment and the rapid availability of films on laser disc, Mr Tsi said: 'Five years ago, you paid less money, you got a bigger screen, a wider seat, and much more value for money. Now the demographics of audiences have changed completely. Families no longer go to the cinema in Hong Kong. Teenagers are supporting the market - the most frequent movie-goers here are now aged between 17 and 30.' But Mr Kong disagrees. 'If you look at the figures, you'll see God of Gamblers II has taken close to $45 million, so there is still a market,' he said. 'The problem is that the overall quality has been poor. I don't think that audiences are tired of local films, but over the past three or four years, the market has been saturated. There have been too many bad pictures, and they have killed the Southeast Asian market. 'Ticket prices do tend to affect the family picture, but in Hong Kong, moviegoers don't discriminate between Western and local films. They will see anything that is good. As soon as they start making high-quality local pictures again, the market will come back.' It may not be that easy. Only two Cantonese features released in 1994 made the all-time top 10 grossing list. And they were both sequels - God of Gamblers II and Drunken Master II, starring Jackie Chan. Mr Tsi reckons 1995 will see a dramatic overhaul in the way local films are made. Firstly, budgets will either shoot up to $30 million to $40 million - a dramatic increase from $8 million to $10 million - or stay extremely low and 'art house' at $4 million or $5 million. There would be no in-betweens, he said. One of the few local success stories of 1994 was I Have a Date With Spring, directed by Ko Chi-sum, which grossed $21.4 million from a budget of $3 million. 'A few producers will try making extremely low-budget films with supposedly good scripts,' Mr Tsi said. 'But the rest will go for much larger films. Andy Lau has already signed up to make a motorbike racing film for Ringo Lam, which will have a very big budget, there's also Jackie Chan's Lunar New Year blockbuster, and more producers are talking about aeroplane dramas, sky-diving, underwater adventures; things which will be more expensive and take a lot more time.' Cantonese films have lost over a third of their market since 1992 - from 33 million admissions to 21 million last year. Western films have crept up to the point where six appeared on last year's Top 20 list - the biggest surprise there is the holocaust epic Schindler's List taking $19.9 million at number 13. 'It has been expected,' Mr Tsi said. 'In 1992, local movie-makers pretty much exhausted the genre of costume martial arts movies and there has been very few creative films in the interim. 'What has finally become apparent is that you have to draw a clear line between film and TV. The quality has to be so much better.' But Mr Kong said he was 'hoping for a turnaround'. 'You can draw conclusions from the box office results which aren't true,' he said. 'The local industry hasn't been producing top-grossing blockbusters recently, but it's not possible either for the American studios to produce five Forrest Gumps, Jurassic Parks or Schindler's Lists every year. These things take time.' Hong Kong's All Time Top Five Grossing Films. 1. Jurassic Park 1993 HK$61.89 million. 2. Justice My Foot 1992 HK$49.88 million. 3. Alls Well Ends Well 1992 HK$48.99 million. 4. Speed 1994 HK$46.43 million. 5. Fight Back to School 1991 HK$43.82 million. Hong Kong's Top 10 Grossing Films in 1994 1. Speed 2. God of Gamblers 2 3. Drunken Master II 4. From China With Love 5. It's a Wonderful Life 6. Treasure Hunt 7. True Lies 8. Love on Delivery 9. Hail the Judge 10. He is a Woman, She is a Man.