The public returns to theaters after COVID thanks to Top Gun: Maverick, blockbusters and discovery vouchers

Independent cinema operators say they are seeing a resurgence in enthusiasm for the big screen after COVID-19 brought the trade to a halt, and research indicates a comeback.

Movie theaters across the country struggled to survive at the height of the pandemic, as social distancing measures capped sales and extended closures plunged businesses further into the red.

Bob Brainwood, of Roxy Cinema in Nowra on the south coast of New South Wales, attributed the recent rise in box office sales to a renewed appreciation for outlets.

“I think people just enjoy going out,” Brainwood said.

Brainwood said that the release of blockbusters such as Top Gun: Maverick, Elvis and Jurassic World Dominion had also helped win customers back.

“Top Gun has proven to be one of the best movies to come out,” he said.

“We’re looking at these titles that come out once a fortnight and they’re still holding up.”

Empire Cinema owner Gerard Aitken said ticket sales this week exceeded pre-pandemic levels.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

The Empire Strikes Back

In the Southern Highlands, Empire Cinema’s Gerard Aitkin said he had also noticed a shift in the demographics returning to cinema, and the unusual times that sessions were booked.

“What surprises us is the age group: there are also many young people there,” he said.

Aitkin said state government discovery vouchers, which expire Thursday, had given his business a head start.

“In fact, I would say this week is bigger than pre-pandemic levels,” he said.

“[The vouchers] They’ve been integral to getting us back on our feet, so it’s good to see people using them.”

A historic building on a rural street under a blue sky.
The Empire Cinema in Bowral struggled at the height of the pandemic.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

Streaming is not a threat

Both carriers said the recent enthusiasm for the big-screen experience could be an indication that the novelty of streaming services was wearing off.

“Everything has its day,” said Brainwood.

“Transmission may be good on some things, but it’s under control now.”

Aitkin agreed, saying that “people who come to see these movies obviously want to have that theatrical experience.”

‘extraordinary year’

Research by Roy Morgan confirmed that movie attendance across the country had skyrocketed in recent months.

In the March quarter, ticket sales were up 77% from the December 2021 quarter, with 3.9 million people visiting the theater over an average of four weeks.

“These impressive figures suggest that 2022 will be a banner year for the film industry as audiences are expected to continue to grow in the coming months,” the market researcher concluded.

“The average moviegoer in the March 2022 quarter went to the movies more than 1.4 times, a rate comparable to immediately before the pandemic two years ago.”

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