How Palace Cinemas took over Australia's film festival industry | Anders Furze

As indie cinemas close, and more film festivals open, there’s one clear winner: the company that runs both

At first glance, Australia appears to be experiencing a golden age of film festivals. In Melbourne alone, myriad events beyond the Melbourne international film festival jostle for cinema lovers’ attention and dollars.

There’s Italian, French, German, Scandinavian, Human Rights and arts, Young at Heart, Football, Turkish and Great British film festivals, to name just a few, each running for sometimes weeks at a time throughout the year.

Amid the deluge, it’s easy to miss that many of these aren’t independent events, but are run by one chain: Palace Cinemas.

“We do try to promote them as their own distinct identities,” says festivals coordinator Alice McShane, one of five Palace staff members working year-round on the 12 festivals they run, including British, Italian and American Essentials. Elysia Zeccola, a member of the family who founded and continues to run Palace, serves as festivals director, alongside a festival manager, two coordinators and an assistant.

McShane says the festivals “are a means of testing the waters, because it’s so expensive to distribute film ... enormously, enormously expensive”.

Film festivals are ‘a means of testing the waters’ for films before embarking on the expensive distribution process. Photograph: Cardinal Spin

She cites the example of Icelandic film Rams to demonstrate how Palace uses festivals as a proving ground for films that can then go on to wider release. The group’s distribution arm, Palace Films, acquired it for their Scandinavian film festival, where it was so successful that they later released it into the broader arthouse circuit.

McShane notes that other distributors also use Palace’s festivals as launching pads. British war dramedy Their Finest, distributed by Transmission Films, screened once at each venue in the Young at Heart seniors’ film festival, with every session selling out. The film has since been given a general cinema release. “It’s one of those things where word gets out somehow … and every weekend I keep seeing that it’s selling out.”

As indie cinemas close, more festivals open

Palace has niche swagger beyond its raw numbers. It has 107 screens nationwide – about 5% of the total. But a major expansion is under way, with the chain planning to more than double its number of screens in the next two years.

In a sign of how convoluted film exhibition can be, the Palace expansion is being made possible in part by the Hoyts group. Hoyts’ cinema technologies division is supplying and servicing the movie projectors that Palace will be installing.

The expansion comes amid increasing commercial pressures for cinemas. By some counts just 16% of cinema seats in Australia are sold each year.

Meanwhile, Hollywood franchises continue to dominate box office takings, squeezing smaller films out of cinemas and into festivals or other events.

Researcher and Guardian columnist Lauren Carroll Harris has found that while the number of independent cinemas across Australia continues to decline, the number of festivals has dramatically risen: from 29 in 2004, to 83 a decade later.

For every breakthrough like Rams or Their Finest, countless other films both begin and end their runs on the festival circuit. Screening a film as part of a packaged event, as opposed to standard release, concentrates limited marketing resources and helps maximise the chance for films to draw an audience.

Astor Theatre
The historic Astor Theatre in Chapel Street, Melbourne, which was recently acquired by Palace. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The business of curation

Carroll Harris says that Palace’s festivals are the most notable example of an “exhibitor-driven” approach to festivals, as opposed to the traditional “curator-driven” model. While curator-driven festivals such as the Melbourne international film festival (Miff) are not-for-profit organisations, exhibitor-driven festivals are complicated by the business concerns of the exhibitor.

McShane notes that Palace’s festivals are attended by the chain’s core audience, along with members of the various diasporas connected to specific festivals. “Palace has always been a European-aligned brand,” she says. “We do find that audiences really respond well to films from Europe. There’s an appetite.”

She notes that the appetite continues to grow as the broader cinema audiences become used to the stars, directors and film output of other countries. “People are becoming familiar with actors; they know them from previous years … they’re not as terrified of subtitles.”

Figures like Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert and Judi Dench have become stars of the arthouse circuit, virtually guaranteeing interest in a certain kind of movie the way that Emma Stone or Ryan Gosling do for others.

McShane argues Palace’s festivals pick up a lot of films that would otherwise go unscreened in Australia. “We were finding that there’s an enormous amount of films from certain regions of the world that weren’t getting screened … There’s only so many films that the Melbourne or Sydney [film festivals] can screen.”

Yet industry figures observe that Palace is also able to exclude from those festivals some of the titles that it has distribution rights for. “The benefit for Palace of being in exhibition and distribution is that they can keep a lot of their titles out of Miff, or other festivals, and save them for their own,” notes critic and festival director Cerise Howard. A spokesperson for Palace declined to comment on Howard’s observation, except to say that they do send certain films to festivals.

Palace also unashamedly programs more commercially minded fare for its festivals. The “bread and butter” of Palace’s offering is, according to Howard, “the more middlebrow end of art house film”.

McShane argues that “things like putting [foreign] thrillers and action movies on the big screen, that’s important for the expat community to see. They relish the opportunity”.

The battle for Brisbane

In the chain’s biggest coup to date, the Queensland government has announced that Screen Queensland will be partnering with Palace for the resurrected Brisbane international film festival (Biff). It’s the first time in recent memory that a major state-supported festival has been run in partnership with a single cinema chain.

The last Biff took place in 2013. It was replaced by the ill-fated Brisbane Asia Pacific film festival, which ended its brief run last year. After BIFF was cancelled a group of academics associated with the University of Queensland started a well-received Queensland film festival. Their festival was supported by Screen Queensland to the tune of $4,000 this year. The resurrected Biff is getting $250,000 in funding.

“The Brisbane film ecosystem is about to receive a big jolt,” says Howard. “It’s very difficult to judge without knowing what the program will be, but this is very much a shift for Palace.”

It is also a major shift for how major state-based film festivals are run. Festivals such as Miff and the Sydney film festival take place across multiple screening venues, and neither is run with just a single cinema chain as its partner.

Carroll Harris notes that while publicly subsidising cinemas is common practice in countries such as France, it’s almost unheard of here, with the exception of Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image.

Sydney film festival at the State theatre.
State-based festivals such as Sydney film festival take place across multiple screening venues, rather than being run with a single chain. Photograph: Anthony Berlangieri

Richard Sowada, the co-director of the new Biff, recently curated the program for Palace’s American essentials festival, and agrees that Biff represents a significant shift in how major film festivals are run. “[But] people need to look deeper than a commercial exhibition chain partnering with the government. It’s not a surface relationship like that.”

The festival has a number of “outputs” it’s striving to meet. “Some of them are commercial,” he says, and others are “utterly cultural and community-based”.

“Palace – or whoever might be involved – can learn a lot about the cultural sector, and the cultural sector can learn a lot from the commercial sector, and they have been, until potentially right now, completely separate.”

Doubts have been raised about whether the Brisbane film ecosystem is large enough to sustain both festivals. ABC Radio National film critic Jason Di Rosso has said that the new Biff will mean that the Queensland film festival “has probably reached the end of the road … It no longer has a reason to exist, really,” he told listeners a few weeks ago.

But Sowada disagrees. “Look, the proximity of dates can be a discussion point, because they’re on soon and we’re a month following,” he says. But on the whole, he argues that there are “a lot of films to go around, and there’s a lot of audience to go around as well”.

Some film insiders are concerned the new Biff template gives one film exhibitor and distributor disproportionate influence over programming, as opposed to the independent model that is the norm for major film festivals.

Sowada says Palace will provide “program input”, but says the other primary link is “really the logistics structure”.

“They have a great economy of scale with a whole range of internal things – printing and freight and business structures and a built-in audience which takes a long, long time to develop.”

He also argues that unlike Palace’s in-house festivals, Biff will be “as independent as much as it can possibly be. The challenge is to marry commercial sustainability to cultural impact”.

• A version of this article was also published on The Citizen

Anders Furze for The Citizen

The GuardianTramp

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