Independent cinema operators are cautiously optimistic about the road ahead as they push forward with their SCREEN Fund applications.
The release of guidelines for the one-off business grants this week means that eligible exhibitors can now proceed with their claims for assistance via Screen Australia.
Depending on their pre-pandemic box office revenue, locations can secure amounts of $35,000, $60,000, or $85,000 from the $20 million support package.
Majestic Cinemas CEO and Independent Cinemas Australia (ICA) vice-president Kieren Dell is among those hoping to receive funding across more than one tier, with the company employing in excess of 100 staff across different-sized locations along the NSW Mid-North Coast.
He said the SCREEN Fund would fill the void between the end of JobKeeper and release of blockbuster films during the US summer in the middle of the year.
“It’s effectively bought us another four to five months of support, by which time we expect the US summer to be in full swing and blockbuster movies returning in force,” he said
“There is a range of things that still need to be done during that time, including managing our rent obligations, and we are continuously talking to our landlords about what point we will return to a full rent situation.
“Obviously, we’d like to see the big blockbusters start to be released more regularly, as it’s been a bit haphazard so far, but once the situation is under control overseas, we expect that to happen.”
Dell said the Easter school holiday period had been encouraging for attendance across his cinemas.
“At Easter, it felt for the first time we had returned to some semblance of normality, in terms of crowds,” he said.
“That’s not necessarily going to continue on for the next month or so after the school holidays finish, but we are starting to see a return to more normal numbers.”
The success of Godzilla vs Kong and Peter Rabbit 2 has helped continue the box office momentum that was spurred by a slew of high-profile Australian releases at the beginning of the year.
It’s another step in post-COVID recovery for Australian cinemas, which have remained tethered to overseas markets throughout the pandemic period.
The road has been long for Victorian venues, such as Cinema Nova in Carlton’s Lygon Street, with the past weekend marking the first time since the pandemic began that they were able to operate at 100 per cent occupancy.
CEO Kristian Connelly said there was still time before the pre-COVID certainty of a major picture every fortnight was realised, adding that the SCREEN Fund, while welcome, needed to be put in perspective.
“Even though we have some successes in the market at the moment that really do reinforce the notion that audiences are keen to return to the cinema, particularly when there is something that benefits from the big screen experience, we just don’t have that continued flow of content from both the upscale areas, as well as the traditional mainstream ones,” he said.
“When you break down the amount of $85,000 over a couple of weeks, or even months, it doesn’t turn out to be a huge portion and obviously it will depend on the business as to how much it will contribute to keeping those businesses solvent.”
However, Connelly said any money that is contributed to the exhibition sector was “money well spent” based on the “very strong signs” that audiences were keen to return.
“The indications we’ve seen locally in Australia with Godzilla vs Kong and Peter Rabbit 2, as well as The Dry, Wonderwoman and The Croods are incredibly encouraging,” he said.
“Pro-rata, both Peter Rabbit and Godzilla vs Kong, appear to be films that would’ve made $200 million-plus at the US domestic market and, in the case of Godzilla vs Kong, it is extraordinary to think it the fourth or fifth installment in that series, and will probably wind up being the highest-grossing all up, despite being released in the midst of a pandemic.
“We here have had success with the major oscar players, such as Promising Young Woman, Nomadland, and Minari, but we are still seeing things getting moved around the schedule.”
The SCREEN Fund is expected to go further in regional areas, where losses have extended to whole communities.
Michelle Coles, who runs Cinema Augusta in South Australia’s Port Augusta with her husband Roger, calculated the figures for her SCREEN Fund application and found her business had been running 76 per cent below what it had been pre-COVID
She said receiving funds from the initiative would “mean the world” to her and her staff.
There are cinemas all over Australia that have really struggled and we’ve struggled really quietly; we’ve all just got on with the job and once JobKeeper ceased, it was a case of, ‘oh gosh, where do we go from here?’.”
“ICA CEO Adrianne Pecotic did an amazing job in working towards getting this funding for us, which means the difference between closing the doors and staying open.
“Even when we weren’t open and my staff wasn’t on JobKeeper, they were still doing odd jobs around the place because they just wanted to be part of what was going on, for which I will be forever grateful.
“To us, what the Australian government has done is amazing.”