Trial by fire helps force rethink of new plex

Delayed opening allowed time for rethink, innovations

MELBOURNE — Hoyts threw out the rule book when it pushed ahead with its new Melbourne cinema.

Late last year, it unveiled the flagship multiplex. Designed by non-cinema architects and interior designers, the 11-screen plex is the most innovative in Australia and it sits atop a bustling mall that just received a A$300,000 ($218,000) overhaul, has cheap parking and a subway station that services every line in the city and a million passengers a year.

According to Hoyts state manager Mark Callanan, Central was the brainchild of ex-topper Darrin Walters, who ankled the company last year.

In late 2004, as the finishing touches were being put on the site a fire gutted half the cinemas. “That certainly took the wind out of our sails,” Callanan says.

It delayed the opening by nine months, but it also permitted a rethink that led to the innovations that make Central distinctive.

Extensive market research revealed that a downtown cinema, in the heart of the college district, needed to offer a different service than that offered in the suburbs.

Local architects Crowd Productions were charged with creating a new type of cinema experience.

There’s a lounge auditorium with beanbags rather than traditional seating; patrons prepared to pay top dollar can relax in one of two plush, intimate cinemas where waiters serve hot food and beverages. Lounge 9 is a free space flanked by a massive screen that’s hired out for events and corporate entertaining and used as a bar at other times (there’s a band each Friday night).

“That was a massive risk,” Callanan says. “Everyone thought we were crazy.”

Melbourne Central is not a prototype for Hoyt’s future properties, but rather a company showcase and an example of cinema sophistication befitting its Melbourne hometown.

It’s certainly a few pegs above the rundown Hoyts Midcity, which shuttered when Central came online, and an enviable example of what can built when operators throw out the rule book.

The gaudy carpet, traditional box office and candy bar gimmicks have been replaced by sleek, industrial-style interiors and single-tone floor coverings.

Crowd’s Michael Trudgeon, who with David Poulton designed the space, explains: “Traditionally cinema foyers are static and empty spaces. That’s crazy. Such a fantastic ever-changing menu of films, with their million-dollar promotional trailers, should be driving the cinema environment from the moment of entry.”

Callanan says in the four months since opening, Central has had 400,000 through the door, but it’s not yet one of Hoyts’ highest-grossing sites.

“New cinemas take at least two years to find their equilibrium,” he says.

It’s difficult to see how a cinema with 21 double beanbags, enabling a maximum 42 patrons (so long as they come in pairs), can work financially.

Callanan says of that concept, “It’s a great hook.”

Sony topper Ross Entwistle agrees: “It’s creating new experiences in the cinema environment.”

When a huge number of your patrons are city dwellers and workers and university students, they have a point.

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