Local cinemas reopen

But will anyone go? Will The Invisible Man play to invisible audiences?

The outlook for Australians cinemas is dismal. In South Korea, which never locked down and whose cinemas remained open throughout the pandemic, box office sales plummeted. In May, just over 1.5 million tickets were sold, down from 17 million in January (figures are from the Korean Film Council). That’s a slight improvement over April, which fell to record lows of less than 1 million. No businesses can survive downturns of such magnitude.

In Australia, Palace Cinema’s Benjamin Zeccola is under no illusion just how difficult reopening will be. He’s told every journalist who has asked that his chain’s post-Covid-19 operation is only possible because of JobKeeker (ie. the taxpayer paying his labour operating costs) and sweetheart deals with his landlords. When both come to an end, as they inevitably will, the art house and overseas festival business model he runs will no longer be viable. It simply cannot survive on choc tops and expensive glasses of pinot if room capacity is limited to 25%.

But at least for now art houses have some content to exhibit – and they’re offering movies whose runs were truncated back in March like The Invisible Man (below), a smattering of small films which probably would not have once got screens, plus some oldies. Few distributors are putting anything new or expensive into such a limited market, while the smaller production houses and independents are tentatively embracing their inevitable future, and experimenting with digital only release models. There’s little data on how that’s working so far, but anecdotally: Not very well…

Most of the chains are following Palace and dipping their toes in the water in July (though not Event Cinemas, who are still trying to work out what to do) with strict social distancing practises in place and limited capacity sessions, but longer term issues remain. No one really knows if cinema’s elderly-skewed regulars have been scared off congregating in an enclosed space for two hours forever, nor just how much “encouragement” (discounting) is required to get them back. Already exhibitors make dismally small margins on most ticket sales outside weekend evenings when they manage to get at least a few full-priced patrons along. Pretty much all big-budget blockbusters that bring the money in have been held back indefinitely, leaving only limited appeal indies and minor foreign films as draw cards. An additional problem is that the core businesses of most cinemas chains (Hoyts, Village and Event) are property development, theme parks and hospitality – all industries which have been decimated by the Covid lockdown recession.

By this time next year, it’s unlikely any will be still standing.

Sure, come July I’ll be paying the online booking fee (resentfully) and (happily) buying tickets at Dendy and Palace, and (since I’ve moved to the Eastern Suburbs) Randwick Ritz and Hoyts Eastgardens too. But now looks like a good time to find something else to do…

I started reviewing local cinema releases in Ciao, then a free print newsprint magazine widely distributed throughout the inner west over 12 years ago – about a year after its 2005 start-up. More or less by accident, I started organising movie ticket promotions. Recently, just for a perverse thrill, I did a rough calculation and estimated that since then, based on the current dollar value of admission tickets, I’ve given away over $190,000.

Cripes, that’s a 10% deposit on an inner west house! Though (sigh) not one any gig-working movie writer or daring magazine publisher could now afford. If only I’d known etc etc … But seriously, all of us who read your entries loved getting them, and knowing you valued what we did here at Ciao. We enjoyed the feedback and your thoughts on more than just movies. And yes, some astute readers quickly learnt that if they made us laugh, or said something that lightened the daily grind, they’d probably be rewarded with a prize.

Since 2005 this little mag celebrated the very best of living in the inner west, and for all of that time, was the only truly independent publication to try that. It’s been a huge honour to have been part of the brave and lovely Ciao team, and especially to be able to share my passion for movies and love for this fantastic part of the world with like-minded people. 

But ciao (for now). May the great gods of Facebook and Google bless you all.

Russell Edwards

June 23, 2020