Regional cinemas close as COVID-19 and streaming services wreak havoc

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Theaters in small towns in northern Queensland are closing their doors, crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic, movie distribution deals and the boom in online streaming.

In Ingham, an hour and a half north of Townsville, the city’s only cinema has screened its latest film after decades of operation.

Manager Germaine Sheahan said the announcement came as a “shock”.

“We knew things were starting to turn bad and I had it in mind, but I just never wanted to hear that,” she said.

The Australian box office made over $ 400 million in 2020 – a dramatic drop in revenue of over 67%.

The Ingham Picture Theater has been hit hard by film distribution deals, which favor big city chains.(ABC North Qld: Lily Nothling)

Despite a loyal following, the Ingham Picture Theater has been unable to recover from COVID-19.

“When the theaters first opened, it was very, very slow to get our customers back because they were used to not coming to the theaters anymore,” Ms. Sheahan said.

The cinema was the only cinema between Townsville and Babinda, which means that local customers will now have to travel long distances to visit the nearest big screen.

“It’s a big loss for a small town,” Ms. Sheahan said.

A woman in a floral dress outside a brick building.
Germaine Sheahan says the closure of the Ingham Picture Theater is a great loss to the community.(ABC North Qld: Lily Nothling)

A “conga line” of closures

The fate of the Ingham cinema is a sign of a growing trend.

In the town of Charters Towers in North Queensland, the city council has made the decision to only show films during school holidays.

“We find that there are a lot of weeks, months, between major holiday events where it’s almost empty,” said Mayor Frank Beveridge.

A heritage building on a quiet regional street.
Charters Towers Mayor Frank Beveridge said the local cinema was “nearly empty” for months. (Provided: Charters Towers Regional Council)

Cr Beveridge said streaming services like Netflix have eaten away at demand for small town theaters.

“I think you will find that there has been a conga line of theaters that have closed all over the Queensland area,” he said.

“Lose money in your fist”

The Ingham Picture Theater has been operated by Ingham Disability Support Services since 2013.

Executive Director Elizabeth Sutton said the nonprofit has lost an average of $ 70,000 a year to keep the cinema afloat.

“2020 has been a horrible year,” Ms. Sutton said.

She said minimum guarantees, where film distribution companies demand a lump sum regardless of ticket sales, had taken its toll.

The small cinema was also required to show the novelties several times a day.

“We pay $ 300 for a week and sometimes only four people come to see a movie,” Ms. Sutton said.

“You’re losing money hand in hand and you can’t keep doing this.

“If there was a lot more flexibility in when production houses let us show or how much they charge, we would probably end up breaking even or making some sort of profit.”

A woman sits in an armchair in front of the window.
Tess Van Hemert says cinemas should prioritize social media and strategic programming to survive.(ABC News: Nickoles Coleman)

Can cinemas be saved?

Tess Van Hemert of the Digital Media Research Center at the Queensland University of Technology said the film industry was already showing signs of distress before COVID-19.

She studied how cinemas can survive in the post-pandemic digital age, where streaming services have made the market more competitive.

“The cinemas that are most successful in retaining their audiences have a very clear and distinct identity and a very strong connection to their local community,” said Dr Van Hemert.

“They often have a very strong connection with their audience via social networks and they are very strategic about the films they show.”

An old-fashioned cinema sign hanging from a lamppost.
The only Charters Towers cinema will now only operate during school holidays.(ABC North Qld: Lily Nothling)

In Ingham, the Hinchinbrook Shire Council is exploring sustainable ways to bring the big screen to life.

Options like Friday and Saturday night screenings and school vacation programming are on the table.

Ms Sutton said young and old would be hit hardest by the closure.

“It’s just one of those things that you won’t have in your childhood and I think it’s really sad,” she said.

“You can’t see Fast and Furious on your TV at home – it doesn’t work, it’s not the same.”


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