'Dune'.

The movies are back! Today in NSW, all cinemas can open at 75 per cent capacity for the fully vaccinated. While the impact of the pandemic on the screen sector has been far-reaching, theatrical exhibition has been among the most affected. With the lockdown lifted, independent operators can now turn their attention to programming the line-up of new releases still to come in 2021, including the much delayed No Time To Die, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and Dune.

Here, IF speaks to Dendy Icon group CEO Sharon Strickland, Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace general manager Alex Temesvari, and Palace Cinemas head of marketing Alex Moir about how they have navigated the past few months and what the road ahead looks like for their respective businesses.

IF: How was your business impacted by the shutdowns? How does this year’s disruption compare to last year?

Temesvari: The shutdown was possibly even more devastating than last year as we had already worked so hard to rebuild the business after the challenges of the initial lockdown in 2020 and we really didn’t see it coming. It was doubly frustrating due to having such a busy and lucrative period lined up over July/August/September with school holidays, high-profile films, and massive live events that had to be either postponed or cancelled.

However, the key difference this time was that we were confident that once we reopened there would be a large number of commercial films waiting for us, release dates were finally sticking, and we knew from last time around that the audiences would be there when we reopen the doors again.

Strickland: This year’s disruption has been much tougher than last year, primarily due to the extended length of time. While there has been some government support in NSW, it certainly doesn’t come close to the loss of revenue we have experienced. Government support for our Canberra cinema has been limited, which is extremely disappointing.

Moir: This year’s disruption has had as significant an impact as last year, if not worse. This is due to the lengthened lockdowns in multiple states compared to 2020, the lack of JobKeeper, and having to lobby numerous state governments for continued support and proving that cinemas are among the safest out-of-home activities continually.

Dendy Icon group CEO Sharon Strickland.

IF: What have been the biggest challenges ahead of reopening your circuit? How will you navigate ensuring patrons are vaccinated? Will you need to take more staff on to ensure regulations are followed?

Temesvari: It’s always a challenge to stay on top of the changing restrictions and guidelines. As indicated by the NSW Government, as a business we simply need to do the best we can and take reasonable actions to check for vaccine status. Our team will be checking for this either at the box office or at the door but the onus is on individuals to do the right thing and not deliberately try to break the law.

The way I explained it to my team is that it’s a good faith partnership between the government, our staff, and the patrons. Everyone will do their best and that’s all that can be reasonably expected. We will be taking on some extra staff due to the upcoming busy period of The Sydney Film Festival and No Time To Die releasing but not necessarily due to the new regulations.

Strickland: Our biggest challenge has been navigating the NSW Public Health order regarding vaccination from an operations perspective, especially until the Service NSW app is updated. We will require additional staff per shift to ensure we are able to adhere to all the requirements by the NSW Government.

Moir: Last year’s reopening was reasonably simultaneous across the states, which meant there was a collective excitement to leverage. This year has been staggered, which naturally makes things more complicated. There are also more restrictions to communicate and safety concerns to alleviate, which is challenging to do while trying not to take away from the absolute joy of cinema, which is escapism from the every day (needed now more than ever!).

IF: In terms of programming, the rest of the month looks to be quiet ahead of a busy November and December. Are you anticipating there will be pent up demand for titles that have been missed during lockdown, such as Shang-Chi and Free Guy? What are the challenges in programming a backlog of titles?

Temesvari: There are certainly programming challenges when it comes to fitting all the backlog of titles and the upcoming new releases. Additionally, The Orpheum also has the added complication of many large-scale events and live shows having been rescheduled into the busy Nov and Dec period, but the way I look at it is that it’s a great problem to have and I would rather have too much content than not enough.

Strickland: Whilst October is quiet from a new release perspective, we are challenged with squeezing in all the content that Sydney has missed over the last few months with titles such as Nitram, Pig, Shiva Baby, Free Guy, Nine Days, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. With Canberra opening up at the end of October, it will be even more challenging to fit in the missed titles in addition with the upcoming new releases.

Moir: There’s pent-up demand for films like Shang-Chi, Respect, and several other titles NSW audiences have missed so far. We’re also delighted with the demand for films already available on streaming, meaning cinema is still the preferred option for a significant number of patrons. To be honest, our schedule is quickly filling up with the ST. ALi Italian Film Festival, British Film Festival, and a jam-packed release calendar from November. Once No Time to Die hits, we’re going to be run off our feet.

Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace general manager Alex Temesvari.

IF: Globally, the pandemic has seen theatrical windows shorten and an increase in hybrid/day-and-date releasing. What are your thoughts on this practice continuing as the theatrical market recovers?

Temesvari: It makes me laugh actually as there was so much hysteria in the industry two years ago about shortened windows and we got publicly criticised for playing films that had shortened theatrical windows, and now everybody is in the same boat having to play releases with much smaller windows. I’ve always believed the windows should be flexible and not a one-size-fits-all model.

Given the bulk of the theatrical business a film does is in that first month, I really don’t see an issue with a 45-day window and I’m more concerned about things going exclusively theatrical instead of hybrid releases like we have seen during COVID. Provided, in most cases, films go theatrical-only first, I’ve got no real issue. It’s also worth noting that even during COVID, we have had success giving certain films a long theatrical run, often continuing to play them weeks after they get released for rental.  

Strickland: Whist I can certainly understand the distributors’ position during lockdowns, in both Australia, and around the world, I certainly do not want to see that continue as we emerge from the pandemic. However, it does appear that the 90-day window is gone, but I’m pleased to see some form of window (around the 45-day mark) looking likely.

Moir: From the change in tactics from major studios lately, we’re certainly seeing them move away from day-and-date releasing, and there’s proof that the economic viability for these films is in the theatrical release model.  If economic viability is in cinemas, an appropriate window will reflect that.  Maybe it will stay as it is or perhaps change, but cinemas are essential to a film’s success. 

Palace Cinemas head of marketing Alex Moir.

Arguably local film helped exhibitors in their recovery at the start of 2021 via films like The Dry, Penguin Bloom, High Ground etc. With an influx of Hollywood titles the market will be noisier through next year, making it harder for local films to get cut through. To that end, what are your thoughts on the upcoming Australian Feature Film summit, which looks to bring producers, distributors and exhibitors closer together?

Temesvari: Local films were absolutely a big feature for cinemas at the start of 2021, in a way that they hadn’t been for many years. The Dry was one of our top-grossing films of all time and easily our biggest film during COVID. I think the biggest take away though needs to be that Aussie films released during this key period were good, commercial films. The Dry wasn’t huge because it was Australian, it was huge because it was good. If Australia can get back to regularly making quality mainstream films that actually appeal to mass audiences, that would be a wonderful thing. Quality and commerciality do not need to be mutually exclusive.

Strickland: This is a very important initiative. We have a terrific Australian film sector producing wonderful content, but we must continue to strategise, as an industry, to ensure Australian films are not only a commercial success but relevant and available for all to see. The Dendy Icon group is in a unique position to support local film producers via distribution through Icon Film and/or exhibition through Dendy Cinemas.    

Moir: One of the absolute joys of the past year has been watching those Australian films capture audiences in massive numbers. To see a film like High Ground take over $3 million is phenomenal, but to have The Dry take over $20 million in such volatile times validates why we do what we do. Any incentive to align producers, distributors, and exhibitors closer is a good thing. Understanding audiences is paramount, and nobody understands them or even has as much direct contact as exhibitors do.   

Read our interview with Event Cinemas and Hoyts here.

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