National cinema chains including Hoyts, Event and Palace reopened to audiences on Thursday, with restricted capacity. In NSW, cinemas are bound by the “one person-per-four square metre” rule, while in Victoria a maximum cap of 20 people remains in place.
The industry had faced concerns that anxiety over the virus and a dearth of blockbuster titles would dissuade audience attendance. But Benjamin Zeccola, chief executive of Palace Cinemas, said the weekend’s business proved “people want to go back to the movies”.
“They’re absolutely loving it. We’ve had so many people commenting on how much they missed the cinema experience,” he said.
“That escape, it’s just so different to watching something at home. It’s more communal, more social, and there’s something special about the shared experience and the concentration required – you’re just more involved in the story than you are at home.”
Alex Holden, general manager of customer experiences at Event Cinemas, said “customer sentiment has been incredibly strong” since the chain reopened on Thursday, and its cinemas had experienced “a number of full-capacity sessions.”
“With movie lovers jumping at the chance to get back to the cinema, kids on school holidays and half-price tickets available for a limited time, we anticipate that momentum to continue,” Holden said.
Zeccola said Palace Cinemas had also sold-out various sessions at its NSW theatres including at Verona in Paddington where social-distancing restrictions mean a theatre that usually seats 120 was capped to 40 tickets. The situation is more severe in Victoria, where limits on audiences remain at 20 people following the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.
“There’s more demand than supply,” said Zeccola. “We have cinemas like Dendy Brighton, where there are nearly 500 seats – but 20 is the maximum number of people that can go in there. That’s hard… So we look at the weekend’s figures and we say we wish they were even better, but we recognise that it’s simply because we’re hitting that cap.”
Lido cinema in Hawthorn – which houses eight theatres, the largest of which usually seats 222 people – returned to regular-priced programming on the weekend after initially reopening on June 22. Penny Jelly, the cinema’s manager, said multiple sessions of The Personal History of David Copperfield and kids’ film 100% Wolf sold out.
“To be honest there were more people than I expected,” said Jelly. “It’s really difficult to keep up with that demand and if we can we’ll try to run concurrent sessions, because we need to be showing as many films as we can all of the time to stay open.
“We need to keep in line with government-mandated decisions so we’re taking [the restrictions] very seriously, but also wanting the cinema to be a place of fun, engaging escapism.”
Larger cinema operators say the weekend’s response was consistent with their expectations, and they remain confident that audiences will continue to grow once restrictions are lifted.
A survey of Event’s more than 20,000 Cinebuzz members, conducted online between April and May, found that 94 per cent of responders “intended to visit cinemas as often, if not more than, before”, while Palace’s survey of over 23,000 Movie Club members found that 64 per cent of customers felt “ready to return to cinemas immediately”.
Robert Moran is a culture reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age