Abundance of new films usher in the return of Melbourne cinemas

Audiences are back for cinemas. Photo by Felipe Bustillo on Unsplash.
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As Melbourne cinemas reopen following lockdown, programmers and audiences alike are preparing to deal with the backlog of new release films. Spencer Gilder-Smith reports.

“The movie comes alive in the theatre.”

Keen filmgoer Alex Breen – like a multitude of fellow Melburnians – is excited to return to the cinema after the long lockdown.

“I look forward to taking full advantage of these screenings. I’m excited to get back into the cinema and see some movies with friends,” he says.

The one problem is the overwhelming choice of new release films coming up.

Cinemas have a backlog of films originally intended for release through August to October now lining up for release.

Screen Australia’s box office results from October 20 show that of the top 20 films included in the past month’s Australian box office, only two were released in Victoria before the state went into lockdown on August 5.

The vast number of notable titles is leading to unique scheduling considerations for programmers.

Abundance of new films usher in the return of Melbourne cinemas

Thornbury Picture House owner, operator and programmer Gus Berger has been busy preparing his theatre’s schedule.

Trying to fit in all the new titles to his single-screen cinema’s schedule is proving a challenge, he says. “It’s like playing Tetris … trying to slot things in.”

“Looking at one date in our program, there are four films with question marks for the evening slot and it’s like ‘which one is it going to be?’ And they’re all good films.

We want to show them all but it’s just such a limitation having one screen.

“I think that if you have this conversation with other cinemas that have more screens, they’re going to be loving all of this choice because they’ll have the room to play them.”

Village Cinemas head of content Geoff Chard says the current state of play for cinemas is different to the aftermath of Melbourne’s 2020 lockdowns, where there were few new titles available due to the pandemic’s impact on the rest of the world.

Screen Australia reports that 2020 saw just 401 films released in Australian cinemas, the lowest figure since 2011.

Abundance of new films usher in the return of Melbourne cinemas
Thornbury Picture House has a list of lies ready to go. Picture: TPH Facebook.

“There wasn’t actually anything released (in 2020). The only two films that took a reasonable level of box office were Tenet and Trolls: World Tour,” Mr Chard says.

“This time we’ve got quite a few films that we’ll be reopening with, (such as) Shang-Chi, Free Guy and The Suicide Squad.

Mr Berger says the limited number of new releases in 2020 made scheduling Thornbury Picture House’s program a lot easier last year.

“In terms of the newer films last lockdown, there was only one big film a month for us to choose from,” Mr Berger says.

“There was Tenet, Babyteeth and The Dry … It was a no-brainer that we’d play a Christopher Nolan film and we’d play a Robert Connelly film with Eric Bana. It was a lot easier to make those choices.”

Mr Chard says that the current influx of new releases is likely to result in shorter seasons for many titles.

“The biggest thing for us is the fact that we’ve got a whole slew of blockbusters, right as we reopen. Last time (coming out of 2020 lockdown) we only had a couple of films opening in November … so we had plenty of time to screen older titles. Whereas this time around, unfortunately they’re going to be relatively short-lived,” Mr Chard says.

Abundance of new films usher in the return of Melbourne cinemas
Filmgoer Alex Breen is preparing to return to Melbourne cinemas, as they reopen post-lockdown. Picture by Spencer Gilder-Smith

“It’s going to be a case of getting as many sessions in as quickly as possible and letting our customers consume as much as they can in a relatively short amount of time.”

Mr Berger says that he is facing a similar consideration in programming his cinema’s schedule, prioritising giving his audience access to as many high-quality films as possible.

“It’s a really a question of looking at the bigger films and deciding which of those are going to work best for our audience,” he says.

“This time is really difficult. We try not to fill our screen with just one film, especially over Christmas and January where there’s a lot of people that want to see films. We want to give them as much choice of quality films that we can.”

One advantage for Victorian cinemas is seeing how films performed in other states. The New South Wales market is particularly valuable for Victorian cinemas in predicting the popularity of films.

Mr Chard says Marvel’s blockbuster Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stands out as a likely success in Victorian cinemas, based on the film’s positive box-office performance in NSW.

The superhero film is already the 10th highest earning film in Australia this year, despite not yet being released in Victoria.

Mr Chard says  this forecasting is also likely to be applicable to the success of Marvel’s Eternals, slated to open in Australian theatres on November 4.

Abundance of new films usher in the return of Melbourne cinemas

“Because we’ve had New South Wales as a guinea pig, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what to expect in the opening weeks,” Mr Chard says.

“We’ve got the results from the last couple of months, with the No.1 film being Shang-Chi. That’s the one film that’s stood out at the box office. Leading into Eternals, that makes the most sense.”

Many cinemas were also forced to cancel several retrospective screenings that they had planned over the past lockdown. Mr Berger says the influx of new release films means that many of these screenings will be unable to be rescheduled at Thornbury Picture House within the near future.

“Some films we just won’t be able to reschedule, because we’ve got so much timely content to play,” he says.

“There are some films like Willy Wonka and Spirited Away that we can put on … we can slot them in on a day session on a weekend. Whereas all of the other films are evening films and that’s where the chaos is in the program.”

Mr Chard says that although retrospective screenings will continue to be a feature in Village Cinemas’ program, the immediate focus is on new releases.

The priority will be all of the big blockbusters that are opening.

“The retro product will certainly be making a return … I’m not sure yet whether they’ll start right away or if there will be a slight delay.”

Mr Berger says audiences will have an abundance of choice.

“All of this amazing content has been building up for almost two years,” he says.

“It’s a good problem to have.”