While the major cinema chains wrestle with what they’re going to do without the major tentpole movies that are their bread and butter, Sydney’s indie picture houses have quietly got on with developing practical solutions as they prepare to open their doors next month.
Erected in 1940, the glamorous Art Deco façade Paramount House brought a little bit of golden age Hollywood to Sydney, acting as Paramount Pictures’ HQ though to the ‘70s. These days the Surry Hills highlight houses Paramount House Hotel and, ensconced in the basement, the fabulous Golden Age Cinema and Bar.
Its swish timber setting and intimate 56-person capacity was once a major drawcard, attracting cinema-goers with a taste for some of that classic silver-screen glamour. But now that selling-point is a cause for worry for CEO Barrie Barton, who says they’re balancing the “excitement of re-opening with the awful reality that while social distancing is set at four-square metres per person, it will be very difficult for any cinema to survive".
How many of my mates can I take to a movie?
The reality of these restrictions means cinemas will be operating at around 30% of capacity. So the Golden Age can only accommodate 17 people max. As Barton succinctly puts it: “Bummer.”
Already hosting private screenings and bar bookings at $90-125 per person, they’ll continue that offering when public sessions return mid-July. They also sought to ride out to storm by bringing the Golden Age experience into peoples’ homes during lockdown, launching a streaming service Movie Night and choc top and cocktail delivery service dubbed Bottle Rocket.
“We really hope people who come along buy a couple of drinks and some snacks too, understanding that it’s a big part of what keeps us afloat, and a big part of what makes a movie fun,” he says of the impending door-opening.
Barton says the Golden Age will look much the same, but with fewer people and more hand sanitiser. “We still have live music and DJs to support the scene in this tough time. The point isn’t really that it will be different in some way. It’s more important for it to still be a great experience and it will be.”
Acknowledging some folks will still be nervy about venturing into a cinema, Movie Night is going nowhere. “Our beautifully curated online streaming platform will continue to show the best of our back catalogue and some exciting recent releases. We’ve got a great place, incredible staff and a loyal audience, so if any cinema can ride out whatever comes, it should be Golden Age.”
What films will I be able to see?
Over the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Cremorne, general manager Alex Temesvari of beloved Art Deco gem the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace says there was no question which movie would be fired up first when they throw open the doors on July 9: the trippy majesty of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Not only because it’s an absolutely ground-breaking and influential classic in cinema, but also because we had a phenomenal run with the film in a special re-release for its 50th anniversary in 2018, where it was literally selling hundreds of tickets per night for a few weeks running.”
Neil Jensen will fanfare that classic on their mighty Wurlitzer. As for the reduced capacity, Temesvari says not ideal, “but having six screens of various sizes makes it workable for a soft opening before the major films start to hit and restrictions are hopefully lifted further.”
They were lucky enough to retain the bulk of their staff on JobKeeper, which helped them survive the lockdown while carrying out maintenance projects. They also pivoted to a savvy merch sideline in t-shirts, mugs and tote bags, rewarding each purchase with an admit one pass for the Aftertime, “to offer our hardcore fans an additional way to support us.”
The major difference for returning audiences will be the sight of hand-sanitiser stations everywhere, accompanied by a major ramp-up in surface cleaning, staggered session times and floor markers for queues.
The delay of blockbusters like Chris Nolan’s much-ballyhooed Tenet, which has had its original premiere pushed from July 16 to July 31, allows an opportunity to showcase indie Australian and foreign-language titles “and to also go absolutely bonkers with our retro film programming”, Temesvari adds. Fantasy classic Labyrinth and the Cohen brothers’ The Big Lebowski will chase 2001 on opening night.
Will I be able to afford a movie ticket?
That glitzy Randwick Ritz will welcome back cinema-goers on July 1, “soaking everyone in sanitizer” with the lure of $10 tickets, or $8 for members. “We want them to have every motivation to come back and it’s a celebration in a way,” says owner Eddie Tamir.
They also launched a home-streaming service, as well running the Isolation Film Festival which championed short movies from budding filmmakers. Attracting 400+ entries with a top prize of $1,000 and a golden ticket to a year of free films, Tamir says. “A lot of them were high quality and even though running cinemas is our main business, it’s obviously great to be involved in being a catalyst for creativity and filmmaking.”
Tamir was starstruck by the opportunity to host a Q&A with Hollywood star Jesse Eisenberg, who plays celebrated mime artist Marcel Marceau in WWII drama Resistance, of the back of their VOD release. It will now get the big-screen treatment at the Ritz, alongside recent digital releases including the Hugo Weaving-starring Hearts and Bones, The Assistant and The Trip to Greece.
The Ritz owner hopes Q&As will help to put bums on the restricted-number of seats, with Hearts and Bones director Ben Lawrence appearing on the first Sunday. “The primacy of the theatrical experience and windows is important to us and the industry, but given the circumstance, it’s kind of like reversing the situation in that even though something is on streaming, if it hadn’t had the opportunity to be seen on the big screen, we believe that the cinema experience is something that people want and is compelling for them."
It’s also time to let indies shine, like highly-rated New Zealand movie Bellbird, plus bringing back strong performers that still had life left in them when they had to close the doors, including Parasite, Jojo Rabbit and Portrait of Lady on Fire. “And while we wait for Tenet, there’s lots of interesting films like Waves, Shirley, Where’d You Go Bernadette and The King of Staten Island.”
Want to know where you can go to see a movie? We’ve got you covered.
This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.