Australia’s top exhibitionists

Presiding over more than a doubling of Australia’s dominant exhibition circuit, Greater Union chief general manager John Smith is understandably confident about the future.

According to Motion Pictures Distributors Assn. of Australia figures, fiscal 1994-95’s box office was worth $A474 million, ($348.9 million) of which Greater Union held 34.2%. Smith claims box office takings have risen 91.8% from $63 million in the 1991-92 financial year to $120.4 million in 1994-95.

Of Australia’s 1,028 screens – an increase from 640 in 1988 – Greater Union controls 222 in its own right, and with partners such as Village Roadshow, lays claim to a total of 342 screens.

In the next four years, Smith plans an additional 312 screens – including a 16-plex in Adelaide -and extensions and upgrades to existing sites, including Brisbane, plus Castle Hill and Macquarie in suburban Sydney.

A star performer of the circuit, Macquarie will double in size to 16 screens, while another bright light, Perth’s Innaloo 11-plex, will expand to include three restaurants, leisure activities and an ice cream parlor.

A new eightplex will open Oct. 19 at Tuggerah, in the fast-growing North Coast area of New South Wales, while a 12-plex is in development at Liverpool, in suburban Sydney.

“The growth is a result of the innovations in our theaters,” Smith says. “It is the facilities we offer, the quality of films, the marketing and the management of our operation that has fueled the growth.

“We believe we have developed the market to such a stage where we can look at quality of presentation and try to influence developers to have additional facilities such as cafes and other leisure activities. The reason we spend a lot of time encouraging developers to include all these facilities is because nowadays, people go out to see movies as part of an entire evening’s entertainment.”

Smith also believes the additional leisure facilities will come to represent important new revenue streams for the company, while also ensuring the cinema is part of a wider entertainment experience in the suburbs.

And it is the growing suburbs, according to Smith that remain the focus of Greater Union’s expansion plans, although the recent regeneration of inner-city areas has ensured a “small growth pattern” for CBD screens and earned them a place in the upgrading program.

Queensland-based Birch Carroll & Coyle (BCC), which was 83% Greater Union-owned until 1991 when GU took total control, is also investing in new screens and upgrades, with four new screens becoming operational by the end of September.

At present, BCC has 106 screens in 26 venues (nine of these are stand-alone) in rural areas of Queensland and New South Wales, plus Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. BCC also manages 40 Brisbane screens for joint venture partners Greater Union, Village Roadshow and Warner Bros.

General manager Richard Parton, who has been with BCC for 24 years, believes Oz’s newly emerging pay TV operators pose a threat to the industry, but one that is manageable.

“The pay TV element is the only hurdle I can see that we would have to overcome in the next two to three years,” he says. “But it is not like the video or original TV sets that impacted on us before.”

“We recovered graciously from that because the board made brave decisions to update and spend money – and not only in metropolitan areas.”

Greater Union screens product from all distribs, with the most pleasing results coming during school vacations. GU’s six best performing pics in the past year are “Forrest Gump,” “The Lion King,” “True Lies,” “The Flintstones,” “The Mask” and “Muriel’s Wedding.”

While the core of GU’s business comes from mass-market titles, movies at what Smith describes as the “high end of the market” – such as “The Piano” and “Much Ado About Nothing” – sometimes manage to cross to the mainstream and do good business. So much so, that the company is now experimenting with making one screen in some multiplexes “a quality pic venue.”

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