Oz’s bigger screens, smaller houses

Aussie exhibitors cater to boomer market

The Oz cinema business has come out fighting after the 10% B.O. downturn in 2005, with exhibs determined to deliver auds a viewing experience superior to what can be had at home.

The market has witnessed a proliferation of sophisticated, tastefully turned-out arthouse cinemas to cater to the booming boomer market and massive megascreen auditoriums for sensation-seeking kids.

The trend for these targeted, niche venues is borne out in industry statistics that show over the past three years that the total number of cinema sites is in decline, and the total number of seats is static, but the number of screens is increasing.

Major exhibs Hoyts, Village and Greater Union/Birch Carroll & Coyle report increasing demand for their premium cinemas (dubbed variously La Premiere and Gold Class).

Hoyts clambered into the Guinness Book of World Records when it opened a 30-meter by 13-meter (98.4-foot by 42.7-foot) screen at Sylvia Park, New Zealand, in March. The company also holds the record for the biggest screen in Australia, at 82 feet wide.

The number of screens in arthouse plexes has increased 20% in 12 months.

Palace Cinemas spent A$4.5 million ($3.2 million) revamping two worn-out venues last year in Sydney and Melbourne; Dendy Cinemas doubled its number of screens with a $5 million spend on two new sites in Brisbane and Canberra; and now the seven-screen Palace Nova in Adelaide is set for a revamp with four new screens.

“It always seems like a good time to expand when the market’s contracting, and the last two years have been a lull,” says Palace general manager Benjamin Zeccola.

“Everything’s positive at the moment,” he adds, referring to the Christmas crop, when “Babel,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Queen” helped generate bumper auds for the sector, “but it only takes a couple of hits or flops.”

In addition to these established arthouse circuits, Greater Union’s plexes are doing good trade with quality movies.

Hopscotch distribution topper Troy Lum reports the circuit boasts some of the strongest sites for his niche fare, which includes the microbudget Russell Crowe-narrated “Bra Boys” doc.

With a steady supply of quality product coming through, nobody is complaining, but the line-blurring between sites that traditionally screen blockbusters and those that favor indie fare does have its downsides.

“The audience hasn’t grown as fast as the cinemas,” says Natalie Miller, co-owner of arthouse Nova Cinema and niche distrib Sharmill Films. “Sometimes if a film is on everywhere the (results are) watered down.”

Rialto Distribution topper Kelly Rogers says, “It is consistently hard to get screens and long runs, which some films need as the word of mouth kicks in.”

Dendy programmed “Casino Royale” at its new nine-screen Canberra plex, to the consternation of some arthouse distribs.

Dendy topper Mark Sarfaty argues the site has enough screens to cater to all types of film.

Palace’s Zeccola adds that it takes time to figure out the audience.

“We initially thought (Melbourne’s Westgarth) would be more arthouse, but we’re finding out it’s broader than that,” Zeccola says.

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