Independent cinemas are still recovering from the turbulent three years of the COVID pandemic, but a year of blockbuster movie releases has sparked hope for struggling business owners.
- Despite most industries returning to “business as usual”, cinemas continue to struggle three years into the COVID pandemic
- Many movies weren’t made during COVID, meaning new blockbuster releases are only just getting back to normal release pace
- One SA cinema was a casualty to the pandemic and will close at the end of the month
Michelle Coles, the owner of Cinema Augusta in Port Augusta and other cinemas in Moonta and Kadina, said during the pandemic there were very few movies made.
“We have had a very difficult time over the last two or three years with getting film product,” she said.
“We’re only just starting to get our film product through now.
“Fortunately, we’ve worked very hard and financially were quite stable, so we were able to manage it [the business] ourselves and just keep our heads above water.”
Foot traffic remains down about 40 per cent at Ms Coles’s cinemas but new film releases set for this year have her feeling optimistic.
“I’m not sure if it’s people are not coming back to the cinema because they’ve got used to watching TV at home [and] they’ve got used to streaming,” she said.
“Is it because of COVID — are they still frightened to come back into crowded places?
“This year there’s lots of good film product coming out … so we’re hoping that picks us up.”
Part of Blyth’s furniture
In the town of Blyth, 13 kilometres west of Clare in South Australia’s Mid North, locals show pride in their cinema.
The Blyth Cinema has been open for nearly 20 years and recently expanded its facility from one screen to two.
“COVID was the spanner in the mix, that tested us a bit … but depending on the movie, it depends on how we’re going,” manager Natalie McElroy said.
People travel from nearby towns, including on buses from Adelaide, to visit the cinema.
“[The cinema] complements a lot of businesses in the town … it’s not just the one-hit wonder of the town, we partner with other people to make sure that everyone benefits,” Ms McElroy said.
“The town folk love that it’s here … everyone thinks it’s so fantastic that a little town of 500 people has this facility.”
Casualty of COVID
Wallis Cinemas took over the lease for Gawler Cinemas north of Adelaide in May last year.
However, community relations manager Deanna Wallis said the company would exit the lease at the end of January after “struggling with product post-COVID”.
“We went in there with the best of intentions, we really wanted to revitalise Gawler Cinema,” she said.
“A lot of films are still waiting to have their video effects done because, over COVID, the streaming services and TV shows took priority.
“We are still playing catch up, and attendance just hasn’t been there, so we had to make that horrible decision — one we don’t like doing at all.”
Gawler Cinemas had less than 10 people some evenings, Ms Wallis said.
Wallis Cinemas operates movie theatres at Piccadilly, Mt Barker, Noarlunga, Mitcham and Mildura in Victoria.
It also runs the movie scheduling of 90 screens at independent cinemas across Australia.
“We are looking forward to seeing where 2023 can take us and of course, we’re hoping the community can rally around us,” Ms Wallis said.
A change in focus
President of Independent Cinemas Australia Scott Seddon said it would take a while for cinemas to get back to pre-pandemic patronage.
“At the moment, our industry internationally is still dealing with contracts and agreements that were made two to three years ago,” he said.
“Who knows what could happen … but I think there’s a fair chance that by the end of this year, the industry in Australia will be back to about 2019 volumes.”
Mr Seddon expected cinemas would change their business models in the coming years.
“In the next five years, especially in regional cinemas, I think we’re going to see a more sophisticated offering to people … more than just popcorn and Pepsi,” he said.
“I think we’re also going to see more special events films and things.
“We have the ability to show opera and national theatre live and things like that in regional areas, which is giving people access to entertainment that they wouldn’t normally see.”