'No Time to Die'. (Photo credit: Nicola Dove © 2021 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

Cinemas in metro-Melbourne are able to reopen to fully vaccinated patrons tonight from 6pm, at 75 per cent capacity or up to 1,000 people. With Melbourne the most locked-down city in the world, IF talks to Village Cinemas executive general manager Nic Robin  and Cinema Nova joint executive director Natalie Miller about how they have fared and how they see the theatrical landscape.

IF: Melbourne has obviously been through repeated lockdowns. How has that been to navigate as a business, particularly after JobKeeper ended?

Robin: The pandemic has been incredibly challenging for our industry, inclusive of the wider arts and entertainment category. Village Cinemas, like many businesses, entered into survival mode believing that the future remains bright for cinema.

Miller: When Nova came out of its first lockdown last year we celebrated with the Lord Mayor Sally Capp coming out and cutting  the ribbon in our foyer. Not long after we closed again. We managed through the Christmas period and Easter and had some months of good business. Then, come end of July this year, the worst lockdown of all leading up to today when finally we can reopen at 75 per cent capacity. 

JobKeeper was an excellent initiative and last year enabled us to look after our staff. This year the Centrelink payment scheme where staff were not required to work was disheartening. I think people want to work, and I hear of some leaving the industry because of uncertainty of government actions.

In terms of reopening now to vaccinated patrons, what have been the biggest challenges to navigate? Are there lessons from previous shutdowns?

Robin: Businesses must remain adaptable and agile as the landscape continues to evolve. Our passionate and loyal people allowed Village Cinemas to overcome each challenge that was presented.

Miller: We are prepared to have someone check that everyone who enters is vaccinated. We will be strictly following all Covid safe rules. We will offer our first 50 patrons a glass of sparkling wine.

There is a strong slate of films to come between now and the end of the year, including No Time To Die. How are you navigating programming those films alongside those that audiences may have missed?

Robin: Consumer and market demand for product drives Village Cinemas programming and session allocation. This customer centric strategy will allow films such as Shang-Chi to play through alongside public interest.

Miller: Yes, we have a strong slate of films to reopen. Lamb, The Last Duel, Nitram, Pig, Respect and looking forward to No Time to Die, Dune and The French Dispatch which will attract big audiences. We already have solid advances of the Bond movie.

We are proud of our reputation to keep films running on a long time so we are pleased to present the return of many we had to cut short. Some are In the Heights, The Father, Nomadland, and Minari among others.

We have a number of festivals coming up including the Italian Film Festival, the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and the Monster Film Festival, all with good advance bookings. We have special events for the delayed release of Palazzo Cozzo and a special event for The French Dispatch among other special offerings. These include the return of the amazing late night long running The Room and alternate content, including a new season of the Met Opera live in cinemas.

Internationally, there seems to be confidence again in the US and UK markets. What are your predictions for market recovery locally? Do you think customers will need to be incentivised to come back to cinemas post-lockdown?  

Robin: Global markets plus promising presales provided incredible optimism. The team are confident with an enormous product slate alongside the inherent want and need for Victorian’s to return to ‘normal’ life.

Miller: I have always held a strong belief that cinema patrons will come back. There is nothing like seeing cinema on the big screen and one viewing option method does not exclude the other from living together. It may be a little slow to start, bit cinemas are such a safe place to be. You sit still looking ahead of you, with limited interaction with others. Although we love restaurants, and wish them well, they have much more people interaction. A good film will always bring someone back to the cinema.

Globally, the pandemic has seen theatrical windows shorten and an increase in hybrid/day-and-date releasing. What are your thoughts on this practice continuing as the theatrical market recovers?

Robin: Village Cinemas believes in a theatrical window to commercially support exhibition, distribution and filmmakers alike.

Miller: Yes, windows have always been a big issue but I think the pandemic has changed the length of them for the immediate future. In the end, again, I say the choice of the big screen will win out, even if the opportunity is there a bit sooner to see it on the TV screen.

Arguably local film helped exhibitors in their recovery at the start of 2021 via films like The Dry, Penguin Bloom, High Ground etc, and it is the second-best year for local film on record. With an influx of Hollywood titles, the market will be noisier through next year, making it harder for local films to get cut through. To that end, what are some of your takeaways from last week’s Australian Feature Film Summit?

Robin: The Australian film industry is an important portion of Village Cinemas product mix.

Village Cinemas hopes to see continued quality product from Australian film makers where audiences can share in uniquely Australian stories.

Miller: It was fantastic to see a number of Australian films do so well this year. It’s because they were very good films and I believe they would have succeeded in normal times. However the reality moving forward with all the backlog and screen space taken with the bigger Hollywood films, it will be a little tougher. But a really good film always wins out if it has a major campaign behind it.

My takeaway from the Australian Film Summit is that it’s great that the conversation was initiated and will continue. I am a strong believer that exhibitors should be part of the decision-making moving forward about what gets made as well as distributors. Many years ago when I was on the first board of Film Victoria (then called the Victorian Film Commission) the board members including exhibitors, distributors and industry practitioners made the decisions. Not every film is theatrical so those choosing what to make need an experienced theatrical eye. The magic is we do not always know.

We can be very proud of our Australian film industry. The strike rate is pretty good, but every submission for funds needs a number of very careful experienced judges.

Read our past reopening stories with Hoyts/Event Cinemas, and Palace, Dendy and the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace.

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