QUT researchers Dr Tess Van Hemert and Dr Ruari Elkington.

Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) are set to partner with Palace Cinemas to conduct a comprehensive audience survey, aiming to understand the mindset and desires of cinemagoers.

The project is conducted by Dr Ruari Elkington and Dr Tess Van Hemert from the university’s Digital Media Research Centre, building upon their study ‘Resilient Screens’, which examines how independent cinemas have responded to COVID-19 shutdowns and continued to maintain audience engagement.

Prior to the pandemic, going to the movies was Australia’s most popular cultural activity, with independent cinemas hosting more than 27 million visitors and contributing more than $250 million into the nation’s economy.

One of the questions Elkington and Van Hemert want to examine is how the pandemic shutdowns impacted the audience ‘habit’ of cinemagoing.

Notably, lockdowns did not impact all states and territories equally. So has the habit for cinemagoing in Perth been less impacted than in say, Melbourne, which had six separate lockdowns comprising nine months?

However, the impact of the pandemic is not the researchers’ sole focus.

Alongside cinemagoing habits, they are keen to examine audiences’ habits around consuming feature films on streaming services.

It is their theory that most people who love watching movies on streamers love going to the cinema as well; that these forms of consuming content work in concert, not opposition.

“There is this binary idea that often gets thrown around, which is that it’s either streaming or cinema, and that in some way these two things that are cannibalising each other. We’re less convinced of that argument,” Elkington told IF.

“I think there is absolutely space and appetite for both those things, feeding people in different ways.”

The researchers will also look at content preferences, as in, what people are willing to leave their homes to see.

While blockbusters like Top Gun: Maverick and Spider-Man: No Way Home have started to draw audiences back to theatres in a big way, Elkington suggests that exhibition cannot survive on tentpoles alone. He is dismayed by suggestions that cinema attendance will eventually go the way of theatre and musicals, with people venturing out of their homes to see just 3-4 big titles a year.

“Part of what I hope this research will be able to do is to gauge appetite, and to also perhaps demonstrate to other cinemas, that people do want, will pay for and will attend far more content than simply those big blockbusters if – and this is the big if – they have access to their content. So… if it’s scheduled for appropriate times and for an appropriate length for those audiences.

“If a smaller, powerful, excellent human drama comes on screen but it’s only in a single location and people only get a week window before it vanishes, it’s really hard for that content to make an impact. It’s really hard for audiences have an appetite for that content; to find it and connect with it.”

The researchers are also interested in audience demographics and what people value about the experience of going to the movies. For instance, does the size of the screen matter? What about immersive sound? Is it better if your seat can recline?

To answer these sorts of questions, the researchers needed a cinema partner of scale and scope to help co-design the survey, with Palace – which has 180 screens across the country – coming on board to co-design the project. The aim is to roll it out in August.

Palace Cinemas national marketing manager Alex Moir says knowing the continued appeal of cinema in a post-pandemic world was “paramount” to exhibitors’ continued success.

“While we’ve seen a change in tactics from major studios distancing themselves from day-and-date releasing, and proof that the economic viability for many films remains in the theatrical release model, we still need a greater understanding of what drives audiences to the cinema vs. staying home,” he says.

The survey will roll out through the Palace Movie Club and QR codes stationed through Palace Cinemas sites. Patrons will also be prompted to conduct the survey as part of the pre-show.

Elkington recognises that people who may have fallen out of the habit of going to the cinema perhaps aren’t active members of a cinema club, or indeed, attending at all.

It’s going to be tough to arrive at a definitive answer to that question. But a way that we’re going to approach it is by asking some questions about the habits of those people that are responding to the survey.

“We know that they’ve engaged with the cinema in some way, but we’re going to ask them to reflect on the past 12 to 24 months of their cinemagoing and to see what the factors are that have shaped that, that have influenced that. Do they feel that they’re going to the cinemas less?… Do they feel that now things have opened up more, that their cinemagoing habits may have changed?”

Producer and distributor Sue Maslin, among the organisers of the recent Australian Feature Film Summit, believes the national survey will provide vital information for the industry.

“This is precisely the kind of research our industry needs and will make an important contribution to growing our understanding of audiences in a vastly changed theatrical landscape,” she says.

“Independent cinemas are where most audiences get to see a variety of Australian films each year. We hope that creatives will benefit more from this type of research in the future so we can deliver more commercially and culturally successful films going forward.”

Looking ahead, Elkington sees scope to conduct a further survey that could also take in larger chains, and other independent and regional cinemas.

“This isn’t the end of the work by any stretch. This is very much still the start.

“So much of the… analysis that we get about audiences in cinemas right now is coming from the UK and US, and they are very different audiences in terms of scale and the cinema circuit there.

“We really need something that’s Australian-specific – that represents the Australian cinemagoing public and the cinemas that they have access to.”

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