Content Cafe


Local hits help Australian cinemas rebound

by Don Groves, Content Café July 15 2021

(Claudia Karvan and Noni Hazlehurst in ‘June Again’ – Image Courtesy of StudioCanal)

Despite intermittent lockdowns, capacity restrictions and disrupted supply of films, Australian cinemas have rebounded strongly this year – partly driven by the resurgence in Aussie features.  

Exhibitors are confident of a strong finish to the year – lockdowns permitting – as Village Cinemas national programming manager Geoff Chard predicts at least 10 Hollywood titles will each gross $20 million -plus. 

However, the extension of the Greater Sydney lockdown until the end of the July -or perhaps longer- will have a lasting, negative impact.   “Once cinemas in Sydney are able to reopen, there will be a large number of titles that haven’t had the opportunity to get a decent run (or open in cinemas entirely), like Fast & Furious 9, In The Heights, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, Black Widow and Space Jam: A New Legacy,” Chard said.  

“The screen space simply won’t be available for all of these titles to fully realise their box office potential, with so many new titles scheduled to release.”  

Fast & Furious 9 – (from left) Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Dom (Vin Diesel) in F9, directed by Justin Lin. Photos Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

On the upside, Chard observed: “Customers have still flocked to the cinemas when there is content available that they want to watch. Australian films had a fantastic run in the first half of the year. In terms of the rest of the year, there is a fantastic line-up of titles scheduled, probably one of the best I’ve ever seen, if only we could get the COVID lockdowns out of the way.” 

The federal government has just announced the 158 independent cinemas across Australia that are sharing in a support package totalling more than $8.7 million to keep their doors open. That’s the first allocation of the government’s $20 million Supporting Cinemas’ Retention Endurance and Enhancement of Neighbourhoods (SCREEN) Fund announced last March, administered by Screen Australia.  

Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts Paul Fletcher said: “Independent cinemas are so important to the social and cultural health of our communities in Australia, which is why we acted quickly to introduce our $20 million SCREEN Fund.”  

While Hoyts Cinemas is not benefiting directly from the federal and NSW government support for small and medium enterprises, some staff who had been laid off will receive payments, according to CEO Damian Keogh. 

Keogh had hoped trading at his circuit from July through December would improve with revenues equating to 80% of 2019 levels. But with Greater Sydney accounting for 22% of the national market, he now doubts that goal is attainable. 

However, Keogh was heartened by the immediate bounce back in ticket sales post-lockdown in Melbourne and hopes Sydney will recover as quickly when the virus is under control. 

The Greater Sydney lockdown has hurt cinemas in regional NSW. “It pretty much destroyed our July school holidays, which are generally the most lucrative of the year after the Christmas/New Year period,” said Majestic Cinemas CEO Kieren Dell, who operates eight cinemas in country NSW and Queensland and received $235,000 from the SCREEN Fund in May. 

“We estimate we were about 50% down from where we should have been in the holidays, but we get very little in the way of rent relief and of course no JobKeeper like we had last year.” 

The Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace is getting $85,000 from the fund. “This will certainly help us but it’s a shame it will go toward paying the bills while we are closed instead of anything more exciting,” general manager Alex Temesvari said. “The mixture of government support this time around will definitely help us to retain staff, even if it’s not quite as strong as JobKeeper.”   

Transmission Films’ Andrew Mackie said: “It seems there’s still a substantial audience that wants to go to the cinema regardless of what’s on. That’s heartening, and as tentpoles return we’re optimistic about the potential for theatrical to fully rebound. It’s been a dark period, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Other territories should take heart from the Australian box office results of the last six months.” 

Nationwide grosses for the year to June 30 totalled $319.3 million, 22% up on the $261.7 million earned in the same period in 2020, according to Numero. So the calendar 2021 B.O. is certain to eclipse last year’s disappointing $401 million.  

The local films and feature docs released in the first six months collectively rang up $69 million, which means this year already ranks as the second higher ever for the domestic film industry, overtaking 2001’s $63.1 million. 

The top earners are Will Gluck’s Peter Rabbit 2 with $21.9 million, Rob Connolly’s The Dry ($20.7 million), Simon McQuoid’s Mortal Kombat ($9.3 million) and Glendyn Ivin’s Penguin Bloom ($7.5 million). 

Cinema Nova CEO Kristian Connelly said: “The year to date has been a long, slow period of rebuilding that has been full of frustrations – namely those brought by lockdowns and the slow relaxation of restrictions – but also pleasant surprises; particularly how quickly audiences return to the cinema once lockdowns end.  

“The year has seen outstanding results from a number of films, many of which have achieved box office results that wouldn’t have been out of place pre-pandemic. Highlights include the Oscar winners Nomadland, Minari, The Father, Another Round, Promising Young Woman and Judas And The Black Messiah, as well as local titles The Dry and High Ground. Upscale features including Benedict Cumberbatch spy drama The Courier, foodie docu The Truffle Hunters and musical In The Heights have also yielded great results.” 

Chard was delighted with Godzilla vs. Kong, which raked in $27.8 million to become highest grosser in the King Kong/Godzilla franchises; A Quiet Place Part II’s $13.5 million, beating the original’s $12.5 million; and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It’s $10.2 million, which will soon overtake the second edition’s $10.7 million. 

Studiocanal’s top titles for the year are Wrath of Man’s $7.2 million and Aussie director J.J. Winlove’s dementia-themed comedy-drama June Again with $2.5 million. CEO Elizabeth Trotman said: “Studiocanal has had a pleasing 18 months throughout COVID, benefiting greatly from our ability to remain nimble and adapt our strategies for the local territory rather than a one-size-fits-all global strategy.” 

The distributor had to scale back the July 15 launch of Navot Papushado’s female-led US action-thriller Gunpowder Milkshake from 214 locations nationally to 173 after 41 sites in NSW were forced to close. “We anticipated the Greater Sydney lockdown and withheld our Sydney advertising spend which we hope to book once the cinemas are up and trading again,” Trotman said. 

Its upcoming releases include French director Martin Bourboulon’s romantic costume drama Eiffel and Gil Kenan’s British fantasy A Boy Called Christmas, based on the book of the same name by Matt Haig. 

RELATED ARTICLE: Read renowned Australian journalist Don Groves’ summary of the creative industry’s performance in 2020 and predictions of the year to come, 2020 In Review – A Year Like No Other

With only a handful of local titles due for release in the coming months, exhibitors don’t expect the 2021 total to beat the all-time record of $88.1 million in 2015, spurred on by Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dressmaker, Oddball, The Water Diviner, Paper Planes and Last Cab To Darwin. 

However, Connelly is optimistic about the prospects of Leah Purcell’s revenge Western The Drover’s Wife the Legend of Molly Johnson, which will open the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 5, and two feature docs: Jennifer Peedom’s River, her latest collaboration with the Australian Chamber Orchestra; and Madeleine Martinello’s portrait of furniture mogul Franco Cozzo, Palazzo Di Cozzo. 

The titles which Chard expects to earn $20 million-plus are Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, which collected $8.4 million in its first week, The Suicide Squad, No Time To Die, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Eternals, Top Gun: Maverick, Encanto, The Matrix 4, Sing 2 and Spider-Man: No Way Home. 

He also has high hopes for Jungle Cruise, Free Guy, Dune, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Space Jam: A New Legacy. 

Typifying the industry’s bullish outlook, Connelly said: “We are genuinely optimistic about the future of moviegoing and Cinema Nova’s place within it. Audiences have been put in a situation where they have more entertainment in-home than ever before, yet they are coming to attractive movies at the cinema in considerable numbers despite pandemic-related concerns.” 

Some exhibitors expect the traditional window of 90 days between theatrical and home entertainment release to be shortened to 45 days for most titles. Majestic Cinemas’ Dell said: “We will need to expect some flexibility around the windows, depending on the title, and be prepared to accept slightly lesser windows, post-pandemic, for smaller films on occasion to ensure a steady stream of quality content.  

Temesvari said he is not concerned about a 45 day-window as the bulk of mainstream titles make most of their box office within that timeframe. Also, he’s convinced customers still prefer to see films in cinemas even when they’re also available on streaming, as evidenced by long runs on titles like Promising Young Woman and The Courier at the Orpheum. 

Chard added: “I think it’s too early to tell exactly what the on-going arrangement is likely to be but we’re optimistic that, with the COVID restrictions globally lifting and theatrical markets returning to normal, the value of a cinematic release is properly recognised.” 

Don Groves is a regular contributor to Content Café, you can read more of his work HERE