Streaming surge could spell end for mainstream cinema, expert says

Palace Cinemas events coordinator Ellie O'Donell Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Palace Cinemas events coordinator Ellie O'Donell Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Australians stuck at home last year binged streaming services, and it could spell the end for the mainstream cinema experience.

University of Sydney emeritus historian Richard Waterhouse said COVID-19 had accelerated the push towards streaming and wasn't confident mainstream cinema could survive it.

Like history repeating itself, Professor Waterhouse said in the same way television killed the suburban cinema, so too could Netflix be the end of a standard experience.

"[Television] within 10 years basically wiped out suburban cinemas altogether," he said.

"What came out of all that was the multiplex."

While owners and operators insisted the allure of the big screen would always tempt people out the door, Prof Waterhouse wasn't convinced and expected a shift towards experience-led ventures in years to come.

"People want something special," he said. "People have been spoilt for choice through home streaming."

Prof Waterhouse said specialty cinemas boasting unique fare would retain a market but a standard cinema would need to "reinvent themselves" by bringing in new content or premium services.

"Culture doesn't happen overnight, so I don't think it will be an immediate consequence," he said.

"I think a lot of cinemas will just try to reopen business as usual, but over a period of few years there will be a remarkable transformation."

Palace Cinemas chief executive Benjamin Zeccola looked at streaming not only as a competitor, but a benefit for business.

He argued the wide array of options from countries and cultures around the world opened people's eyes to films beyond the Hollywood blockbusters.

It's centres like Canberra's Palace Electric, home to international film festivals and independent options, which Prof Waterhouse said could weather the storm of streaming.

Business declined 70 per cent in the past year due to lockdown, capacity restrictions and people's hesitancy to go out.

But, Mr Zeccola was adamant there would be a resurgence to the big screen.

The out-of-control pandemic in the United States had put a stop to Hollywood blockbusters but he said Australian and independent options had performed better as a result.

"Cinemas can compete with any form of paid entertainment. I think cinemas struggled to compete with illegal piracy that was happening at the turn of the century," Mr Zeccola said.

Palace Electric events coordinator Ellie O'Donell said providing experiences like film festivals was key to bring a niche audience through the door.

"Our film festivals and foreign content really bring people to Palace. That separates us from other cinemas," she said.

Attendance to the French Film Festival this year had almost met that of 2019, despite 75 per cent capacity.

While Ms O'Donnell was also confident people would not stop coming to the movies, without JobKeeper she expected the business would strain.

"The main struggle is staffing, especially without JobKeeper, that's where we'll struggle," Ms O'Donell said.

The Australian box office made $401 million in 2020, a 67 per cent decline on the year prior.

JobKeeper payments, set to end this month, had been key in propping up small cinemas, Independent Cinema Association president Scott Seddon said.

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The organisation has called for a sector-wide package to help them "get to the other end of the tunnel".

While COVID-19 had left many small businesses under immense pressure, most remained open.

Mr Seddon said audiences would return when Hollywood films did.

That was expected in the second half of 2022 as US cinemas reopened following the vaccine rollout.

"Cinema will survive for the same reason it survived black and white television, colour television and pay TV," he said.

"People have that need to get out of the house."

He agreed with Professor Waterhouse that the future of cinema was in the experience to go with it.

He said complexes integrated with bowling alleys and restaurants would be key, as well as premium food and beverage services.

Some operators have called for a mandatory exclusivity window for cinemas, after COVID-19 allowed distributors to release straight to streaming platforms.

Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher didn't support that proposal, saying it was a matter for commercial negotiation between operators and distributors.

"While some segments of the cinema industry have called for government legislation to regulate the theatrical release of films, other segments of the industry are strongly opposed to this idea," a spokesman for the minister said.

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