G'day for Aussie exhibs

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LAS VEGAS -- On Monday, ShoWest shone its spotlight on the Australian exhibition scene, where admissions grew to 85 million in 2007 as boxoffice climbed toward $750 million.

After a steady growth in new theaters in the 1990s, theater expansion has leveled off, and Australia now represents a relatively mature market, according to Ross Entwistle, managing director at AHL Entertainment, whose Greater Union Organization film chain was feted as International Exhibitor of the Year at the convention's International Day luncheon.

With the population aging, as well, the biggest growth segment has been moviegoers over the age of 35, and the industry has responded to that market by developing premium-priced theaters. "This audience segment wants to be treated differently, and they are prepared to pay a premium," Entwistle said.

Ticket costs already are higher than their U.S. equivalents, with the average Australian ticket going for $9.30 in U.S. dollars.

But while Australia ranked a solid No. 6 among all foreign territories in 2007, the panel, moderated by producer Ian Sutherland, identified a number of current challenges: film piracy, a slow conversion to digital cinema and lack of boxoffice impact on the part of local productions.

"Australia is second only to China in the number of pirated discs seizes," said Stephen Basil-Jones, managing director and executive vp Australia/New Zealand at Sony Pictures Releasing International.

He also pointed out with an average of six films released per week, Australian cinemas were being asked to absorb more films than they can handle.

Only 1% of the country's 1,941 screens have been converted to digital. One stumbling block has been the inability of exhibitors and distributors to agree on a virtual print fee that will help fund the transition.

"We haven't seen a model where the exhibitors' contribution is a cost-neutral one," Entwistle said.

Distributors argue that the traditional rental fees have favored exhibitors, which is one reason the two sides have yet to agree on a virtual print fee.

Also, whereas a number of European countries have received government help to subsidize the conversion, that has not been the case in Australia, said Paul Johnson, director of digital cinema for Atlab Australia.

"Most screens have come aboard through 3-D and the Real D 3-D program," he added.

Although Australian films make up 8% of the films released in that country, they account for only 4% of the boxoffice, despite efforts by exhibitors to support home-grown product.

"We haven't had a monster hit since the 'Priscilla (Queen of the Desert)' days," Basil-Jones noted.

Tracey Viera, who is based in Los Angeles as a film commissioner for Ausfilm, said that incentive programs have been successful in bringing foreign productions to Australia, adding that incentives are now being introduced to encourage local film production as well.
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