Lure of the Big Screen: Cinema in Rural Australia and the United Kingdom

Lure of the Big Screen: Cinema in Rural Australia and the United Kingdom

by Karina Aveyard


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ISBN-13: 9781783203826
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 02/15/2015
Pages: 175
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Karina Aveyard is a lecturer in the School of Film, Television, and Media at the University of East Anglia. 

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Lure of the Big Screen

Cinema in Rural Australia and the United Kingdom

By Karina Aveyard

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2015 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78320-384-0


Hierarchies of Rural Cinema

Films are exhibited in a wide variety of different settings in rural areas of Australia and the UK. In large regional centres, film-going options are dominated by modern multi-screen venues with wide screens, comfortable seats and an extensive selection of latest releases – the type of cinema that would be immediately recognizable to many city audiences. In smaller towns, these give way to older-style twin- and single-screen theatres that feature more dated décor, less cutting-edge projection and sound equipment, and a more limited selection of films. In very small and remote settlements, where film exhibition is generally not viable on a commercial basis, screenings are held in purpose-built and makeshift facilities by various public sector and volunteer organizations including local councils, community groups, registered charities, film societies and a few enthusiastic individuals.

There are significant similarities between Australia and the UK in terms of the form and pattern of these different types of screening situations. These shared characteristics facilitate the aggregation of cinemas into the typology outlined in the Introduction – a hierarchy that spans five tiers from Large Commercial, Small Commercial, Subsidized, Community and Improvised Cinemas. The majority of rural settlements support only one type of cinematic enterprise, although sometimes multiple enterprises are able to coexist. For example, Bundaberg (Queensland, Australia) supports a four-screen Reading Cinema (Large Commercial) as well as the single-screen Moncrieff Theatre, which is owned by the local council (Subsidized Cinema). Similarly, the town of Taree (New South Wales, Australia) sustains Fay's Twin Cinemas (Small Commercial) and the Taree Film Society (Community Cinema), which organizes the screening of art-house films that are not normally shown as part of Fay's mainstream programme.

This chapter is largely descriptive and looks at each category in turn, while subsequent parts are focused on closer analysis of these different exhibition and cinema-going contexts. As previously outlined, my rural cinema classification system organizes enterprises according to operational characteristics – principally screen capacity, commerciality and management structure. These lines of delineation illustrate both the depth and breadth of contemporary rural exhibition activity in Australia and the UK. Traversing issues such as access to films, the transition to digital projection, piracy, geography and demographics further highlights the extent to which these key economic, social and cultural trends affect exhibitors across each layer of the typology. To facilitate comparison and later analysis the overview of each cinema type is structured around the four standardized sub-headings – ownership, locations, film programming and profitability.

Large Commercial Cinemas

Large Commercial Cinemas are distinguished by their modernity – contemporary decor, high-quality image and sound, a steady turnover of the latest release movies and conveniences such as online ticketing and generous car parking. They are defined here as venues housing four screens or more within a single complex. Venues of this capacity are classified by Screen Australia and the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia's (MPDAA)5 as 'multiplexes' and the terms are used interchangeably in this book. As a business proposition, Large Commercial Cinemas represent a significant capital investment in buildings and technology. They are therefore found predominantly in large population centres where the number of local cinema-goers is sufficient to generate a profitable rate of return.

In many ways, multiplexes – whether rural or metropolitan – are very similar. Stuart Hanson observes that large multi-screen cinemas tend to 'conform to certain styles of design and function', which are aimed at maximizing audiences and screening capacities (2007a: 158). Foyers function as crucial revenue-generating spaces, and are given over almost entirely to sales in various forms. This is where tickets and profit -rich concessions (candy bar items) are purchased; additional revenue is generated from video games machines; and current and upcoming films are advertised via large poster displays and television screens playing trailers in a continuous loop. Within the actual auditoriums, patrons can expect to find relatively large screens, comfortable seats and a high technical standard of film presentation, including access to 3D. In terms of screen content, both rural and metropolitan multiplexes offer a range of current mainstream releases that are refreshed on a regular basis.

However, while city and rural multiplexes conform to this fairly general type, there are also some notable differences between them. These relate principally to operational scale and the adoption of new technologies. Large movie theatres in rural areas have on average fewer screens and this is directly related to the fact that they often service smaller populations. Instead of building ten or more screens within the one complex, an exhibitor is more likely to opt for installing a more modest six or seven. This reduces the operator's financial risk, but has an impact on film programming and audience choice. At city multiplexes, it is a common practice to run certain films – particularly blockbuster releases – across numerous auditoriums at slightly different starting times. The aim is to capitalize on the popularity of a film in the early weeks of its release, but this is not so practical when there are fewer screens to programme. Fewer screens can also mean less variety. While major releases are always guaranteed a run, it is often more difficult for cinemas to find space for niche or specialized titles.

In terms of technological change, chain-owned multiplexes are well on their way to full conversion to digital projection (Given et al. 2013: 14–15, BFI 2013a: 125–126), although this was rolled out at a slower pace than in most city locations. Across other aspects of the film-viewing experience, innovations like luxury auditoriums (known in Australia under brands such as Gold Class and La Premiere and in the UK The Lounge and Scene) and gigantic screens (brands include Xtremescreen and V-Max in Australia and Vue Xtreme and isense in the UK) have been slower to emerge. Even in relatively large rural towns it can be difficult to generate returns that justify the capital outlay required to create and maintain these high-end viewing experiences.


Corporate affiliation has a significant impact on the structure and operations of Large Commercial Cinemas. Most multiplexes are owned by major chains, and this means most operational and strategic decisions are made by staff at metropolitan-based head offices. These include determinations about cinema design and branding, what films are screened and for how long, the arrangement of session times, ticket and candy bar pricing, and the terms of audience loyalty programmes. This can limit the scope for individuality, as Steve Meggs, a former manager of the Reading Cinema in Dubbo (New South Wales, Australia), explained: 'In Dubbo there wasn't much scope for responding to local conditions at all. Almost everything was dictated by Reading's central office' (Meggs interview, 13 July 2009). However, being part of a chain can also have its advantages. Major cinema groups are often in a position to negotiate more advantageous terms with distributors over access to film prints and revenue splits. They also get access to television, radio and print film advertising that is paid for by, or at least shared with, distributors. Another benefit of scale is the availability of capital for technical upgrades, such as the installation of digital 3D projection and surround sound, and other enhancements like the timely refurbishment of tired-looking foyer areas and upgrades to seating.

There are significant numbers of Large Commercial Cinemas owned by independent operators in both Australia and the UK. However, independent multiplexes tend, for the most part, to be a rural phenomenon. In the cities, movie theatre locations are generally tightly controlled by the major exhibitors and there is often little space for non-aligned entrepreneurs to gain or retain a place in that market other than as specialized venues (usually as art-house or family-neighbourhood orientated). However, outside metropolitan areas, independents regularly have space to prosper in towns where the majors elect not to operate.

As outlined above, one of the key operational differences between chain-owned and independent cinemas is the absence of centralized management. Whereas chains are governed by policies from head office, operational and strategic decisions at non-aligned cinemas are undertaken on site by local owners and managers. This creates more scope for flexibility and customization, particularly with regard to programming. For example, after testing audience demand for alternative content (operas, ballets, etc.) a few years ago, the CMAX cinema in Devonport, Tasmania now includes these events as a regular part of its schedule (CMAX Cinemas 2011; Elliot 2009). This localized experimentation would have been more difficult if the venue had been operating as part of a major chain.

Independent multiplexes generally do not have significant problems in accessing films at the same time as their metropolitan release. Unlike smaller commercial operators, they tend to generate relatively high returns per screen, and are therefore of greater interest to distributors. However, because the number of screens they control overall is smaller, independents remain at some disadvantage. This generally does not affect major releases, but for titles in more limited distribution, chains usually receive priority. This can result in significant delays for independents, as Kieren Dell the owner of Majestic Cinemas (with five sites in New South Wales, Australia) explained:

[For the film] Samson and Delilah there are only 21 prints of that in the whole country. It was doing really good business in the city and we are about to run it at the end of August as part of the NFSA's Big Screen Festival that will be held in Nambucca [Heads]. We will then get a print which we will have waited three months for because of the limited number [...] This is an example where we have to wait behind the city. It will go to there first, then to larger places like Newcastle and Wollongong, then to larger regional centres where there are more people and then finally to places like Nambucca [...] When you have to wait so long you then start to come up against the DVD release date and it may not be worth showing it.

(Dell interview, 29 July 2009)

Digital advocates have suggested that the shift away from 35mm projection will help alleviate these kinds of capacity constraints, but this is yet to be successfully demonstrated on a large scale. As is discussed in detail in the next chapter (section titled Digital Cinema), even as the industry approaches full digital conversion, distributors continue to cap the number of film prints made for particular territories. For now, films with perceived limited audience appeal, like Samson and Delilah, tend to remain in limited distribution.


In overall terms, the number of multiplex cinemas in rural Australia and UK has increased significantly over the past two decades. This growth has been underpinned largely by new constructions (Hanson 2007a: 144–157). Like city multiplexes, numerous new rural cinemas have been built in shopping malls and entertainment precincts away from town centres. This trend has been particularly evident in Australia where the availability of larger tracts of land makes this type of development more feasible. Examples of town centre complexes include the Birch Carroll and Coyle cinema situated in the Central Shopping Mall in Cairns (Australia), and the Forum 6 cinema in the Centrepoint Shopping Centre in Tamworth (Australia). In edge-of-town locations, cinemas like the Birch Carroll and Coyle complex at Coffs Harbour (Australia) have been built; this cinema is co-located in a leisure development that incorporates several family restaurants, bars and a children's indoor play centre.

Where the capacity for extension exists, some older cinemas have been refurbished to keep pace with increased demand for screens. This has enabled them to remain within traditional town centre areas, and contribute to sustaining a more vibrant social life in these places. For example, the Regent Cinema in Albury (Australia) was built as a single-screen venue in the 1930s. It now houses nine screens but remains in its original central location (Regent Cinemas 2011, 2013). Similarly, the Regal Movieplex, located in the heart of Cromer in the UK, has been extended from its initial single screen, built in 1914, to its current four-screen configuration (Love email communication, 18 July 2011).

Film Programming

As already outlined, rural multiplexes screen most mainstream films at the same time as their metropolitan premiere. This concurrent releasing can be highly advantageous as it allows rural exhibitors to capitalize on publicity generated by national promotional campaigns, which are usually coordinated and paid for by a film's distributor rather than the cinema. These promotions typically include television, print and online advertising, as well as attention generated by movie reviews and media coverage of stars on television chat shows and red carpet premiere events.

Most rural multiplexes offer audiences access to a varied film programme, although the emphasis is typically on mainstream Hollywood releases. At cinemas owned by major chains, centralized film booking tends to result in a standardized line-up across all sites in the group. On-site managers are able to request specialized or niche titles that are not pre -programmed for their cinema. However, the willingness of head office staff to accommodate these demands can vary between companies. As Steve Meggs, former manager of the Reading Cinema in Dubbo (Australia), explained:

They [Reading] generally did not adapt the programming at all to local audiences. I used to ask for films that I thought would work well with the local audience, but was usually told by management that they didn't think they would. Sometimes I got the films I wanted, but more often I didn't. Lantana was a classic example. I thought it could do well but head office thought it was too sophisticated for a rural audience. After a lot of haggling, I eventually got a print and it did really well.

(Meggs interview, 13 July 2009)

Other managers at chain owned cinemas describe situations where central administrators have been more amenable, but find even with this support it is not always possible to get the films they want to screen because the number of prints is limited (Mahoney interview, 3 December 2009; Kilderry interview, 5 October 2010).


The ongoing viability of a commercial cinema enterprise is contingent upon it being able to cover operating costs and return a profit. The majority of cinema income is typically derived from ticket sales, but candy bar and screen advertising revenues are also crucial. At rural multiplexes in both Australia and the UK, ticket prices are generally 10 to 20 per cent lower than at comparable city venues. This differentiated pricing reflects the lower average incomes of local residents, and possibly also the lower level of capital investment tied up in the cinema. It is also a contributing factor to the lower average returns per screen for rural operators discussed in the next chapter.

In terms of ancillary revenues, films attracting audiences in the key 16–24 years demographic tend to generate the strongest candy bar sales, and are therefore often among the most profitable (Mahoney interview, 3 December 2009; Aveyard and Moran 2009: 41). Younger patrons are more likely to buy popcorn and soft drinks, where pricing mark-ups are at their highest. Advertising is also an important additional source of revenue. Most multiplexes (chains and independents) are tied in with national screen promotions groups, which provide access to a steady supply of major advertising campaigns.

One of the largest operating expenses for cinemas is film hire – the fee paid by the exhibitor to the film distributor for showing a movie. The fee is calculated on a percentage of gross ticket sales. It can range from around 35 per cent up to 60 per cent or more for blockbuster releases. The fee generally operates on a sliding scale that is at its highest in the early weeks of release and begins to decrease after the initial four- to six-week peak period has passed (Mahoney interview, 3 December 2009; Meggs interview, 13 July 2009). Films that continue to attract a significant audience beyond the four- to six-week mark can therefore be highly lucrative for exhibitors.


Excerpted from Lure of the Big Screen by Karina Aveyard. Copyright © 2015 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Tables and Images
List of Abbreviations
Cinema Case Study Sites
Chapter 1: Hierarchies of Rural Cinema
Chapter 2: Rural Cinema as a Business
Chapter 3: Rural Cinema and Public Policy
Chapter 4: Rural Cinema and Grassroots Movements
Chapter 5: Rural Cinema as a Social Event
Conclusion: The Lure of the Big Screen
Appendix A: Methodological Notes
Appendix B: Industry Interviews and Correspondence

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