The Australian Community Cinema Project Putting The Love Back Into Movie Going

The Australian Community Cinema Project Putting The Love Back Into Movie Going

Part of the magic of going to the movies is the spontaneous communal reactions we experience. Be it shrieking at a jumpscare, laughing at a joke, cheering after a moment of triumph or bursting into tears in public because that last scene was just too sad. Each of these reactions, bond us not just to the film on screen, but to each other, as human beings. It’s as if for the duration of the running time, we are one with ourselves and each other. One giant, interconnected, cinema loving (or in some cases, loathing) organism, existing in and for the moment. It’s an experience familiar to us all, and a reminder of the power and importance of community in our physical and mental wellbeing.

For 20 years, Perth, Western Australia’s Telethon Community Cinemas, have taken that sense of community to another level, delivering a truly unique cinema-going experience to the patrons of their four outdoor theatres, while raising millions of dollars for children’s charities. A non-profit entity, Telethon Community Cinemas is operated by 700 volunteers, who work tirelessly and selflessly through Perth’s long summer months to host screenings in four distinctly different park locations, Bassendean, Burswood, Murdoch, and ECU Joondalup Pines. It’s a beautiful concept and one that the Western Australian community has warmly embraced, resulting in close to 10 million dollars in donations being made to assorted children’s charities. Founder Ken Gibbons explains, “The primary purpose is to raise funds for children’s charities here in Perth, but we also engage in other community fundraising activities, including screenings for local clubs, and just recently we ran a full day of screenings on Australia Day where we donated every single cent of our profits to the [Australian] bushfire relief efforts”.

The idea of a non-profit cinema is wholesome enough and would have most looking up the next session times to attend, but Telethon Community Cinemas offers so much more than that to the community, as Ken details, even the choice of locations is community focussed. “All of our locations are in parklands, and that is done deliberately to allow for families, friends, and groups to gather and mingle for a couple of hours before the screenings, and make a full night out of it. It can be pretty hard for families to go out for a full evening of entertainment, without having to worry about their kids falling asleep or getting bored or needing to go. Our location allows for them to bring pillows, blankets and other comforts they need, so if the kids need to go to sleep, they can and the parents can still enjoy themselves.”

The freedom and space of the setup also has other benefits, including making for a better cinema-going experience for customers with autism and other conditions that might make the multiplex an uninviting choice. “We have parents who email us and comment on how they’ve been fearful of going to most theatres because their kids who are on the autism spectrum find it all too overbearing and they’ve had some bad experiences. They comment that because of our flexibility, because of how responsive our staff are and how welcoming the environment is, that they’ve been able to enjoy wonderful nights out with their children.”

With 700 people from all walks of life, volunteering their time and skills, the operational model of the cinemas is equally community focussed. Every single screening held is operated by a team of volunteers with varying levels of experience, which allows for Telethon Community Cinemas to act as a valuable training and community integration operation as well. “Every screening is run by a complete team of volunteers. The only qualification needed is a good heart, so we do provide a means for people of varying different levels of abilities or conditional circumstances to get some work experience and feel connected to something bigger than themselves. Whether that’s a 16-year-old needing some customer service skills for employment purposes, or an 80-year-old retiree looking for a way to give something back, they’re all welcome.” The logistics of it all are impressive. “We have 52 teams in total, managed by 26 night managers, with each non-manager donating one night per fortnight. It’s flexible, as people’s circumstances change.”

Those volunteers get to experience the thrill of seeing their efforts pay off, not just in the smiles of happy customers after a successful screening, or the total contribution, but in a more tangible way as well. “When it comes to deciding on where to donate the money each season, people who have worked 10 or more screenings actually get a say in where the money raised gets donated. Last year, we raised $650 000 and each person got to have a say of where, on average $1500, was donated to, out of the 8 organisations we’re connected to. So they get to feel a sense of pride in seeing that tangible contribution”

Telethon Community Cinemas are also contributing to the community in another, more holistic way as well, by providing a rare opportunity for communal interaction, via not just the uniquely communal setting, but the presence of staff as well. Returning customers to a time when attending the cinema, truly felt like a night out, akin to a concert or theatre show. “Most modern cinemas, you buy a ticket online, you drive to the cinema, you might talk to one person at the candy bar, then you take your seat next to someone you don’t know and hope they don’t get their phone out and ruin the movie. At our cinemas, we try to maintain a sense of human connection, we truly put on a performance for you. We have people available every step of the way, to help with parking, directions, ticketing, floor staff, bar or helping with beanbags. We actively encourage groups to bring picnics and sit together and enjoy that special connection of seeing a film with family and friends and then reflecting on it together. We really do try to keep the customer’s experience first.”

Another way in which Telethon Community Cinemas differentiate themselves from a service perspective is in their ticketing policies. “Firstly, about 80% of our sessions are pre-sold online, we don’t slug them with a $1 or $2 booking surcharge, our price points are the same online and on the door. Secondly, our gift vouchers don’t expire, either, and thirdly, people can alter their choice of screening up until 5.45 PM on the day of the screening and swap it for any other future screening. In that sense, once you purchase a ticket, they don’t ever expire.” It’s a pretty revolutionary approach, one that truly puts the customer first, further adding the community ideals that powers everything that Telethon Community Cinemas do.

In keeping with the community ideal, the film screenings on offer are a little more varied than at most cinemas, with some screenings specifically designed to be a uniquely interactive experience. “From a curation perspective, we obviously try to screen as many of the current films as possible, because that’s what most people want to see. There is of course a focus on family-friendly options, but there’s also opportunities to show other things. We tend to program the blockbuster films on the more popular nights, and then try to land exclusives, or acclaimed independent films, while keeping room for your classics like Dirty Dancing or Rocky Horror, with those films presenting opportunities to really embrace the space. We’ve got a Rocky Horror screening coming up, with the full show bagging and all, which is always one of our most popular nights. The focus is always on community.”

With the largest cinema, Burswood seating 1000 patrons, and all others at least 500, it’s fair to say that the cinemas are being embraced by the very community that they support. 20 years into operation, Telethon Community Cinemas continue to succeed, by putting the wants of the customer and the needs of the community first, in the process bringing back a little bit of the magic of attending the cinema.