Eddie Tamir, whose family owns the Randwick Ritz cinema in Sydney and three other independents in Melbourne, had been looking forward to throwing the doors open again next week.
“It’s the first time we’ve been closed for a minute in 23 years. We’re all about being open,” says Mr Tamir, whose Elsternwick Classic, Cameo Belgrave and Lido Hawthorn cinemas still plan to reopen on Monday June 22, with the Ritz to follow on Wednesday, July 1.
“Everyone is about shared experience and connection and hugging and touching, so it’s all a bit boring. But the restrictions are there for a reason and we’ll make them work.”
Those restrictions vary from state to state, a scenario Hoyts CEO Damian Keogh says “has been a nightmare” as the major cinemas attempt to come up with their own timeframe for reopening.
Hoyts has around 23 per cent of the Australian market, but being owned by the Chinese Wanda Group it is part of the largest cinema operator in the world. Chinese cinemas were the first to close down, in January, and despite stuttering attempts to reopen, they remain closed.
“I think the ramp-up is probably going to be slower than the government thinks,” says Mr Keogh. “People are keen to get back in, we’ve done everything safety-wise, ticked those boxes as hard as we can. But it’s always been a content-driven industry.”
And that’s the great unknown as cinemas attempt to emerge from their enforced hibernation: what will they be showing?
For a while, everyone took the fact that Warner Bros had not rescheduled Christopher Nolan’s Tenet as the closest thing to a guaranteed relaunch date. But this week, the studio moved the film from its July 16 slot to July 30. Now, Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, set for July 23, looks likely to be the first blockbuster off the rank.
But what happens in Australia in terms of tentpole releases is utterly dependent on the situation elsewhere, and that situation is extremely fluid.
US cinemas are due to reopen on July 10, but with coronavirus case numbers climbing in some states there’s a question mark over that. Together, China and North America account for around half of global box office, meaning the studios are unlikely to release their big titles into a market that will make it impossible for them to turn a profit.
“At the end of the day it’s the psychology of people to feel safe and go out and be around other people, and that will be dictated by infection rates, and then by the content we have available,” Mr Keogh says.
The issue affects all cinema operators, but it is especially acute for the blockbuster-reliant majors, such as Village, which begins opening in Victoria on Monday and will have all venues there open by July 9.
The majors will reopen with reduced ticket prices and a return of the films that were screening when the industry was shutdown (The Invisible Man, Bloodshot, Sonic, Jumanji: The Next Level) and a handful of old favourites (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Bridesmaids, Groundhog Day, Kill Bill).
The operators in the independent space, such as Melbourne’s Cinema Nova, which reopens on Monday, and the national Palace chain, which will open on July 2, have more flexibility to schedule repertory cinema or mid-market films – some of which might otherwise have struggled to find a berth, and some of which debuted during shutdown on streaming and video on demand services, including Hugo Weaving in Hearts and Bones and the Harvey Weinstein-referencing The Assistant, from Melbourne-born filmmaker Kitty Green.
There have been some small positives in the shutdown, with Mr Tamir noting it offered him the opportunity to experiment. He launched the “at Home” streaming service, linked to each cinema’s web page. “I’m a total Luddite and a cinema purist so it was an unusual thing for us to do but we jumped in and it’s been great,” he says.
He hosted a live-streamed Q&A with Jesse Eisenberg for the Australian premiere of Resistance (about legendary mime Marcel Marceau’s efforts to save Jewish children during WW2) and an Isolation Film Festival, in which local filmmakers competed for prizes with their isolation-themed works.
“Could we have done that without being shut down? Probably. Would we have done it? Probably not.”
But, he adds, whatever the upside there is no comparison to simply being open again.
“I haven’t learnt any great life lessons,” Mr Tamir says, “other than that this has been a very challenging time.”
Clearly, it’s not over yet.
What’s on at the movies
From June 22: The Assistant, Resistance, Monos, Kriv Stenders’ documentary Brock, and Hearts and Bones
From July 2: Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, British romantic dramedy Love Sarah, Bellbird, Romantic Road
From July 9: Waves, psychological drama Shirley
From July 14: Palace will restart its truncated French Film Festival nationally
From July 16: Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island
From July 23: Mulan, bittersweet Australian comedy Babyteeth, art-world thriller The Burnt Orange Heresy
From July 30: Tenet
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.