Watch: Sam Mendes, Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward discuss future of the cinema
Set at a cinema in Margate in the 1980s, the movie talks about the unifying power of the cinema experience alongside themes around mental health and racism.
But Mendes, who won an Oscar for American Beauty and has made two James Bond movies, told Yahoo UK he has serious concerns about whether films like Empire of Light will have a place at the multiplex in the future.
He said: "I think it's on the way out for smaller movies, definitely. People talk about attendances being back up to pre-COVID levels, but those attendances are seeing 20-25 movies. They're not seeing 200 movies."
Mendes pointed out that cinemas have increasingly turned their focus to ultra-profitable blockbusters like Avatar: The Way of Water, while offering little choice beyond those massive movies.
"I went to the cinema the other day. Screen one: Avatar. Screen two: Avatar. Screen three: Avatar," he said.
Mendes added: "That's not why we invented multiplexes, but that's how they're going to be used now. You can see Avatar every half an hour.
"That's scary to me, and sad. I do think that the idea of a wide choice at the cinema is going. To say anything else is to pretend it's not happening."
Mendes said there's "nothing quite like" the experience of seeing a movie on the big screen surrounded by strangers.
He added: "It's a different experience to watching at home. It's not better or worse. It's just completely different and it's something we don't want to lose."
Empire of Light focuses on Olivia Colman as cinema duty manager Hilary, who forms an unlikely romance with the venue's new employee Stephen (Micheal Ward).
Colman said it was "quite depressing" to see the same film spread across all of the screens at a cinema, but said blockbusters play a crucial role in establishing love for the art form.
She said: "My first in with the cinema was watching Star Wars. Then I discovered the art cinema in my teenage years and discovered a whole new world of different types of film.
"So if I hadn't seen the big blockbuster, I might never have [done that]."
Ward agrees that blockbusters can prove to be a gateway, with Avatar viewers likely to see a trailer for Empire of Light before the screening.
He said: "I feel like that is gonna get a lot more people to say 'let's go watch Empire of Light next week, it's out'. I feel like that actually will help in that kind of back-handed way."
Empire of Light is set to be a big player in awards season, with Olivia Colman already nominated for Best Actress (Drama) at the Golden Globes and likely to secure a nod in the corresponding category at the Oscars.
Empire of Light is in UK cinemas now.
Watch: Trailer for Sam Mendes drama Empire of Light