Small town cinemas across North Queensland are shutting up shop, crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic, film distribution deals and the online streaming boom.
In Ingham, an hour and a half north of Townsville, the town’s only picture theatre has screened its last movie after decades of operation.
Manager Germaine Sheahan said the announcement came as a “shock”.
“We knew things were starting to go badly and I had it in the back of my head, but just never wanted to hear that,” she said.
The Australian box office made more than $400 million in 2020 – a dramatic revenue drop of more than 67 per cent.
Despite a loyal following, the Ingham Picture Theatre could not recover from COVID-19.
“When cinemas did open up, it was very, very slow to get our customer base back, because they were used to not coming to the cinema anymore,” Ms Sheahan said.
“Movies weren’t coming out as regularly, the big blockbusters … that’s when we really struggled.”
The cinema was the only movie theatre between Townsville and Babinda, meaning local customers will now have to travel long distances visit the nearest big screen.
“It’s a big loss for a small town,” Ms Sheahan said.
A ‘conga line’ of closures
The fate of the Ingham cinema is a sign of a growing trend.
In the North Queensland town of Charters Towers, the council has made the decision to only screen movies on school holidays.
“We’re finding that there’s a lot of weeks, months, between the major holiday events where it’s nearly dead empty,” Mayor Frank Beveridge said.
Cr Beveridge said streaming services like Netflix had eaten away at the demand for small-town cinemas.
“I think you’ll find there’s been a conga line of theatres closing down across regional Queensland,” he said.
‘Losing money hand over fist’
The Ingham Picture Theatre has been operated by Ingham Disability Support Services since 2013.
Chief executive Elizabeth Sutton said the non-profit organisation had been losing an average of $70,000 a year keeping the cinema afloat.
“The year of 2020 was horrendous,” Ms Sutton said.
She said minimum guarantees, where film distribution companies demand a flat fee regardless of ticket sales, had taken a huge toll.
The small cinema was also required to screen new releases several times a day.
“We’re paying $300 for a week and sometimes only getting four people to come and see a movie,” Ms Sutton said.
“You’re losing money hand over fist and you can’t keep doing that.
“If there was a lot more flexibility in terms of when production houses allowed us to show or how much they charged, we would end up probably breaking even or making some sort of profit.”
Can cinemas be saved?
Tess Van Hemert from the Queensland University of Technology’s Digital Media Research Centre said the cinema industry was already showing signs of distress before COVID-19.
She has been investigating how movie theatres can survive in a post-pandemic digital age, where streaming services have made the market more competitive.
“The cinemas that tend to be the most successful at retaining their audience have a very clear, distinct identity and a very strong connection with their local community,” Dr Van Hemert said.
“They often have very strong connection with their audience through social media and they’re very strategic about the films that they’re programming.”
In Ingham, the Hinchinbrook Shire Council is exploring sustainable ways to revive the big screen.
Options like Friday and Saturday night screenings and school holiday programming are on the table.
Ms Sutton said young people and seniors would be hit the hardest by the closure.
“It’s just one of those things that you’re not going to have in your childhood anymore 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.”