Until recently, I hadn't been to the National Gallery of Victoria for about 15 years, and it wasn't planned. With the missus, I'd intended to take my 8-year old son to the theatre at the Arts Centre during the school holidays, but we just turned up and found it booked out. I didn't bother booking ($7 online booking fee seemed a bit outrageous); hey, how the hell are they gonna fill 400 seats at $30/head? Big mistake. They did.
So, quick change of plans and we walked up St. Kilda Rd. to the nearby NGV. The couple of hundred metres or so was quite a challenge. It was wall-to-wall people. We get to the NGV and there's a queue something like 3 kilometres long snaking all around the inside foyer to see the Art Deco exhibition. I swear I'm not exaggerating. So, one of the gorgeous volunteers suggests we become members and jump the queue. Now, I'm not a materialistic person, but I do value my time. So we paid the annual fee (we can go back again, we figure) and went in the members' entrance without delay. How good is that?
Hah, what a joke! The exhibition was in its final weeks, the weather was gorgeous and every man and his dog (well not his dog, but you get the idea?) was there. Some 4,000 - 5,000 people must have attended that single day. I started to get some perspective why this precinct was so congested.
I've been thinking about this for the last few days. Now, I'm no expert on attendances at the arts that I'm not particularly acquainted with, but I have been watching 100 or more films a year for a long time now (for 2007 and 2008, it's approaching 300 per annum). With the exception of MIFF and the French Film Festival, it's almost alien for me to see such huge numbers of people attending any screening I go to. In two and a half years of being a member of Melbourne Cinémathèque, I think we've filled up all seating at ACMI maybe twice, and on both occasions, it was because we used the smaller Cinema 1 (from memory, it holds 200 or so, compared to 380 in Cinema 2, the regular venue). A typical night at Cinémathèque, there's say 100-200 people and 300 is busy.
I've been to a session at the Kino and been the only person there. I've often been to various arthouse cinemas and been one of a very small handful. Then I'll take the kid to the latest blockbuster at Hoyts Melbourne Central, and I find it staggering to see hundreds and hundreds of seats filled in one of these huge cinemas (and there's about a dozen of 'em). Something like Wall-E will show on two or more screens in the opening weeks.
Now, I don't want to get too much into the "art house is dying" argument. Not only is Lynden Barber doing a much better job of it than I ever could, it's not really my point. I'm wondering why a family would spend $100-$300 for a day or night at the theatre. Not just a family, but many, many families. And other than Saturday nights, the arthouse cinemas are struggling. Lynden seems to think they're dying a slow death.
It was certainly dispiriting to see the Lumiere close down a couple of years ago. With Kino's association with Dendy and Nova's association with Village, the Lumiere was the only true art house cinema left in Melbourne (not counting ACMI, which is a different kettle of fish). Of course, the Lumiere had issues with service and facility. Who wants to go to a shitty looking cinema when they're all dressed up with their partner on a night on the town? Well I would, because for me it's all about what's on the screen, but I acknowledge that others place more emphasis on other criteria. And the service attitude was terrible. But the story of the Lumiere is for another post.
When I look at the strangers I find myself talking to at MIFF, it seems a whole different class of film-goer than I see during the year at say the Kino, Nova or Como cinemas, and certainly different to the ACMI clientele. I've spoken to people who attend 80 or more films over two weeks, but then don't see another film for the next 50 weeks. For the rest of the year it's the other arts. This seems to be the same upper middle-class demographic that also flocks to the French Film Festival.
What is it about these two events? I think it's at least partially about social stature. MIFF and FFF appeal to the status of some people. Sometimes it seems that this type of audience are less interested in the films themselves, but rather the social event. I've never seen (or rather, heard) so many people chatting during a film as I do at the FFF. And of course, the Como with its relatively recent pseudo-bourgeois decor perfectly caters to this market. Don't read this as a criticism of Palace Cinemas at all. I like the Como, as kitsch as it might appear to some. I was there last night and happy to find myself in new seats in Cinema 3 (though take note that Cinema 1 still has the old-style seats). By the way, the film was Towelhead, and I enjoyed it. More in another post.
I think my line of thinking should be reasonably apparent at this stage. I'm thinking that some arts are flourishing and some are floundering. I received my NGV magazine in the mail the other day. It's called Gallery and it's very flash. It costs serious money to put a magazine like this together. This is all funded, either by government, business and/or philanthropists. It seems that some people will support some arts because there's a prestige attached to it. They'll attend an event that costs $30, $50 or $120 per head, but not a $12 event. Maybe it's beneath them. Maybe cinema is just the poor man's art, the entertainment for the masses. Maybe cinema is not even seen as art, but rather just the way the less civilised entertain their families.
I recently learnt that ACMI received about $6M of funding for the remodelling that's currently taking place. In the same round of government hand-outs, the Art Centre received something like $140M to extend. That's one year of funding, with additional funding over subsequent years. Man, what ACMI could do with that kind of money. That's serious moolah!
Now, this is not a journalistic treatise but rather, just an expression of lingering thoughts that won't go away. A lot of money is spent on the arts, and as far as I'm aware, they don't really make money. They prosper because of the support of others, from the support of sponsors, and that support results in audience support.
While we can't expect sponsorship of commercial cinemas, we could see greater support for ACMI, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. As far as commercial cinemas, Palace has cottoned onto this idea by catering upmarket. And as far as I can tell, they seem to be succeeding where others have failed. I'm very interested in others thoughts on the matter. So, any ideas? Thoughts? Suggestions?