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'We can’t just leave them unattended for months on end': The coronavirus lockdown presents unique problems for Aussie cinemas

Sharon Masige
  • The film industry has been seriously impacted by the coronavirus, with cinemas in Australia ordered to shut.
  • Some distributors are launching titles which otherwise would have been shown in cinemas on streaming and home video.
  • The Independent Cinema Association told Business Insider Australia it is optimistic about the prospects of the industry once theatres are allowed to open again, but says the sector faces unique challenges.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Cinemas have been hit hard in Australia due to the coronavirus outbreak and the restrictions imposed by the government, and it could be some time before they bounce back.

On March 23, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced cinemas, among several other venues, must close to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

And while streaming may be an ideal solution for many of us who are stuck at home during this pandemic, it isn't necessarily the answer for cinemas.

"Once the film is streamed, it's dead," Independent Cinemas Australia (ICA) president Scott Seddon told Business Insider Australia. "No one is going to go and pay money to see it."

ICA is a nonprofit organisation that represents independent cinemas including Palace, Dendy and Cineplex.

While the federal government has announced stimulus packages to help the economy amid the coronavirus, Seddon said existing guidelines are confusing, especially when it comes to paying staff.

"Do we keep paying them? What are we actually getting if we pay them? Are we getting a credit for their entire wages or just for their PAYG tax?" he said, emphasising that cinemas at the moment don't have any money coming in at all.

Amid the cinema shutdown, Seddon pointed to a set of unique challenges for the industry. For example, cinemas require at least one person to go into the venues once a week – or every two weeks – and run the projection equipment so it doesn't break down.

"We can’t just leave it unattended for months on end," he said. "If we leave it off, without regularly restarting it then there are some components that just won’t restart.”

Seddon added that test screenings need to be performed, especially on older projectors – which are mainly found in independent cinemas.

“That’s because of the security within digital projectors of cinemas, so that you can’t plug into them and copy things off them," he said.

"They have some rather complex onboard software running on all the boards in the projector to detect any interference. So they really need to go. Especially some of the older ones, what are called Series One projectors, the early digital projectors...that came out when "Avatar" was out.

"Unfortunately, it's independent cinemas who are more likely to have some of that much older equipment. If you don't turn them on every two weeks, [when] you turn them on, they are gone."

Seddon added that these particular projectors are no longer supported and getting a new one comes with a hefty price tag.

"You're then looking at $80,000 to $90,000 for a new projector before we're going to open the doors in the case of one of my sites," he said.

The coronavirus has caused several films to shut down production and film releases to be postponed

“A Quiet Place Part II”, Disney's "Mulan" remake and the latest James Bond flick "No Time To Die" are among a list of film releases that have been postponed because of the coronavirus. So far only two Aussie films have had to bump their release dates back: "I Am Woman" and "Never Too Late".

However, some studios got creative with films set for cinema release by allowing them to head directly to the small screen.

In the US, NBCUniversal released "Trolls World Tour", "The Hunt" and "The Invisible Man" to video-on-demand services.

Plus, "The Lovebirds", which stars "Insecure" creator Issa Rae and comedian Kumail Nanjiani, was initially set for a theatrical release but will instead go straight to Netflix globally (including Australia). Its release date is yet to be announced.

Aussie streaming provider Stan told Business Insider Australia that it "is always engaged in a range of discussions with content partners and distributors relating to new content opportunities and windows."

Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason told Business Insider Australia by email that while there are examples of films being released on streaming services in the US, that's hasn't necessarily been the case yet in Australia.

"This isn’t something that is happening here yet but I would think some filmmakers and distributors will consider it," he said.

He added, however, that it was "disappointing" to see Australian films "with great potential with audiences" like "The Invisible Man" and "Miss Fisher and The Crypt of Tears" cut short by the current coronavirus situation.

However, distributor Roadshow Films has since fast-tracked the home release date of "Miss Fisher and The Crypt of Tears" and other films such as "Birds of Prey, The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn" so you can get it on services like iTunes.

There is optimism over the cinema industry recovering once theatres are allowed to reopen

Mason said the impact of COVID-19 on the Australian film industry is evolving every hour, with the exhibition and distribution market hardest hit.

"We are very concerned for all the individuals and businesses already impacted here and will continue to work with them," he said.

Cinema chain Hoyts said 98% of its employees are on permanent full-time or part-time contracts and is allowing them to access personal, annual and long service leave as required over the coming weeks and months.

"We are doing our best to manage in this rapidly evolving environment by working with our crew in a collaborative manner on a number of alternatives to prioritise job security," the company said in a statement.

Seddon believes the cinema industry has a chance of recovering "quite well" once cinemas are allowed to reopen, especially as people will want to go out.

"When you look at the global financial crisis, we recovered very well from that," he said. "When the fog does lift and the lockdown issue is finished and we do have cinemas opening again, we're going to have millions of people who have been stuck in their house – who have completely exhausted the catalogs of their streaming providers – going to have a bit of cabin fever and want to get out."

And there will be a lot of films coming out for people to watch.

"Once we get to that stage, we're going to have a lot of products," Seddon said. "We've got all the big titles that have been postponed plus all the other titles that are waiting in the wings that had already been scheduled for that time. Once we do open, I think as long as cinemas survive and are able to open, I think we have a chance to recover fairly well. But the really big issue, of course, is surviving until then."

Mason suggested ways we can support the Australian film industry during this pandemic, such as buying or digitally renting Australian films and TV shows, or streaming them from services offered by free-to-air broadcasters (think ABC iview or SBS on Demand).

"With people spending more time at home this presents a unique opportunity to explore the back catalogue of diverse and inspiring Australian titles," he said.

Mason was also confident about Aussies supporting cinemas once they reopen.

"Despite the challenges, for over 100 years our industry has been characterised by its resilience and when the cinemas open again there’s no doubt Australians will go out and support both exhibitors and filmmakers," he said.