Vale Robert Ward
Robert Ward (L) and Tony Bates.
Friends and colleagues have paid tribute to Robert Ward as a passionate and committed pioneer of the new wave of Australian cinema that began in the 1970s.
Ward, whose career spanned exhibition, distribution, production and theatre equipment, died last Thursday after a long illness, aged 80.
He earned several accolades including Medal of the Order of Australia, a lifetime achievement award from Independent Cinemas Australia and national cinema pioneer of the year.
“Robert was a real pioneer in the early days of new Australian cinema, blending exhibition assets and distribution skills into Australian production at a time when – with the exception of the then embryonic Village Roadshow – it was not a popular choice among old school exhibition and distribution,” veteran producer Antony I. Ginnane told IF.
“He loved movies and he loved movie people and was an endless source of gossip and anecdotes about this crazy business. He helped many people get started and continued to give back to the film industry all his life. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him.”
Village Roadshow co-chairman/co-CEO Graham Burke said: “Robert was one of the truly great pioneers of cinema and a dynamic showman.”
Ward started in the industry working for his father at the family-owned Brighton Prince George and Dendy theatres.
“Robert saved his father’s cinema as a teenager by showing quality films such as A Man and a Woman which were not available on TV,” said Wallis Cinemas’ Bob Parr. “He was a showman and a visionary with technology.”
His programming made the Dendy a landmark for independent and foreign films as well as forgotten or overlooked films such as Zorba the Greek.
He later expanded the Dendy circuit to locations in Collins and Lonsdale Streets in Melbourne, suburban Malvern and Forest Hill, and Crows Nest in Sydney.
Dendy Collins Street was the first cinema to run on a platter system with Xenon lamp and automation. That led to Ward becoming the Australian agent for Christie projection equipment.
In 1970 he and the late Mark Josem co-founded distributor Filmways, which invested in The True Story of Eskimo Nell, Fantasm and Fantasm Comes Again, and distributed films including Tim Burstall’s Kangaroo and Bob Ellis’ Warm Nights on a Slow Moving Train.
In 1978 he co-founded with Josem, Ginnane and Bill Fayman Australian International Film Corp, which produced Blue Fire Lady, Patrick and Snapshot.
Ward may have been the only independent who produced and distributed films which he screened in his own cinemas, according to David Kilderry, joint MD of the Lunar Drive-in Theatre in Dandenong.
He was instrumental in persuading American property developer and exhibitor Jim Cotter Senior to launch Reading Entertainment in Australia, serving as a consultant as well as co-owning Reading cinemas in Townsville and Dubbo.
“It’s fair to say that Robert was the guiding light of Reading Entertainment for many of those early years,” said Reading MD Wayne Smith. “He remained a loyal and close partner of Reading until the time of his passing but I guess his most outstanding and enduring quality was the deep personal friendship and bond that, over time, embedded Robert into Reading’s DNA.”
Among his contributions to the industry, he was a board member of the Victorian Film Corp/Film Victoria and of ICA.
“Robert was a legend in both cinema distribution and exhibition in Australia and a true cinema pioneer, who will be greatly missed,” said Film Victoria CEO Jenni Tosi.
ICA CEO Adrianne Pecotic said, “Robert was a great supporter of independent cinemas, our longest serving ICA board member and a valued friend and advisor to so many of us.”
Survivors include his wife Helen, his brother Andrew, two sisters, four children and extended family.
The funeral service will be held at 2 pm this Wednesday 26th July at St Andrew’s Anglican Church, 228 New Street, Brighton, followed by a wake at Brighton Yacht Club.