The first batch of funding for the government's SCREEN Fund has been announced. (Image: iStock)

The Federal Government has announced $8.7 million in funding for 158 independent cinemas under the Supporting Cinemas’ Retention Endurance and Enhancement of Neighbourhoods (SCREEN) Fund, but remains coy on whether assistance will be provided to major exhibitors.

Applications opened in April for the Screen Australia-facilitated fund, which is designed to support independent cinema operators with one-off business continuity grants of up to $85,000 if they have experienced significant declines in revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While many cinemas have been welcoming back audiences at pre-pandemic levels for blockbusters such as Black Widow, F9 or Godzilla vs. Kong, those in Greater Sydney have been forced to close during the traditionally strong school holiday period as the city battles an outbreak of the Delta strain.

Of the operators that will share in the first round of SCREEN funding, 52 are from NSW, 38 are from Victoria, 29 are from Queensland, 19 are from WA, 14 are from South Australia, three are from the ACT, two are from Tasmania, and one is from the Northern Territory.

Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason said the agency had “quickly prioritised” administering funds for the cinemas.

“We are pleased that in the three months since we opened applications in April, more than $8.7 million has already been allocated and distributed to cinemas, assisting partners in the sector who were incredibly hard hit by the pandemic,” he said.

But there remains no word yet on whether assistance will be provided to major exhibitors.

Following the announcement of the SCREEN Fund in March, the National Association of Cinema Operators (NACO) initially expressed its disappointment about a lack of support for major exhibitors before entering into discussions with the Treasury that left the organisation optimistic for a “positive outcome”.

NACO executive director Michael Hawkins told IF the dialogue with the government was “continuing but with renewed fervour” amidst a “brutally tough” climate for exhibitors.

“Australian exhibitors had been looking forward to cinemas globally reopening which would then see titles begin to flow again, F9 and Black Widow included,” he said.

“Releasing them during the school holidays would have seen cinemas slowly start to recover losses sustained during the previous 12 months.

“The closure in many cities at the commencement of the school holidays and now the extended closure in Sydney is prolonging the pain and agony for exhibitors and also movie-goers who, following strong results for A Quiet Place 2 and the opening weekend of F9 (and Black Widow in other states), was evidence that cinemas were back and that movie-goers were very keen to return to the big screen.”

When asked about the prospect of funding for major exhibitors, a spokesperson for the government reiterated its commitment to independent operators.

“The government outlined its position to support independent cinemas when SCREEN was announced in March,” they said.

“That is the basis for our funding,” they said.

ICA CEO Adrianne Pecotic thanked the government for its ongoing support but said the sector “was not out of the woods yet”.

“We eagerly await details of the Commonwealth Government’s support for regions affected by these outbreaks and hope independent cinemas will be included,” she said.

SCREEN Fund applications are open until December 24 or until total funds are committed. For more information here.

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