Film maker calls action on New Zealand cinema film
There's something about the shared experience of the movie theatre that has Nick Homler hooked.
The 24-year-old freelance filmmaker, content producer, and editor from Mahwah, New Jersey, is capturing something of that experience in a documentary he is making on independent cinemas in New Zealand.
"The working title is The Shared Experience of New Zealand about the past, present and future of New Zealand film," Homler said. "I am looking at New Zealand history and influence."
He is doing that by contacting every one of the country's independent cinema owners and asking them to contribute to his documentary, while offering them a short film tailored to their cinema in return.
"One out of three would get back to me and I think that's pretty good. It's a huge level of trust.
"I am having a really good time with this project and meeting really good people. The main part of this project is to give back to this film industry as well as take from it. Every single person is a character and a genuine person."
The idea came after Homler graduated from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and was suggested for a Fulbright scholarship. In the meantime he began working on an American documentary which he called The Shared Experience.
"I decided to make my documentary because in the States digital conversion is costing cinema owners over $60,000 to upgrade so I talked with four theatres about how they would come up with the money; one down in Connecticut, two in Upstate New York, one in New Jersey.
"The big thing the cinema industry is up against in America is Netflix and other streaming media."
Subscribers to the internet service can rent film and television shows online and watch them on any internet connected device.
"All my friends back home have Netflix. I am the only one who does not have an account," Homler said.
That discovery got him thinking on an international issue, and got him more engaged with the subject than ever.
Homler happened upon Cinemas of NZ, a website created by Waikato University associate professor Geoff Lealand who teaches screen and media studies.
"I thought that's half my research done for me, so I sent him an email and he said 'Nick, I will support your project'."
Some might say it's ironic to celebrate the cinema in New Zealand when we are all supposedly sitting at home watching films on television, DVD, or downloads, Lealand says on his homepage.
"But the evidence is otherwise . . . one website (www.nationmaster.com) claimed New Zealanders rated number three in 2010, in terms of cinema attendance per capita (behind Iceland and the USA). Val Morgan, an authoritative source, points to the art house/independent sector as the fastest growing audience group in New Zealand."
Asked what he thought about that statistic Lealand said "They don't give a source for the information, I look at that with a degree of scepticism, but if it's on the web there's probably some truth to it."
A more recent report from Nielsen Media Research said New Zealand had been to the cinema 2.2 million times in the six months ending May 2015.
Ticket sales for 2014 were $183.1 million nationally, up four per cent on 2013.
However, the latest estimate for admissions per capita from the Motion Picture Distributors Association of New Zealand is 3.3 per year.
Screen Australia statistics for 2014 show South Korea topped the world with 4.3 visits per capita, North America came second with 3.6 and Australia and New Zealand tied third place with 3.3.
Lealand thinks it could be higher if the younger generation turned its back on downloading movies from the internet, either legally or illegally.
"I can understand it to a certain extent, when you have less disposable dollars it's easier to use Netflix rather than forking out $14 or $15 at the cinema.
"I would regard it (downloading) as an impoverished experience as opposed to going to the cinema with a group. I go to 80 or 90 films a year, but then I can afford to."
Homler arrived in New Zealand in February and is living in Hamilton attached to Waikato University's Screen and Media Studies department.
"I hate to say this, but there's a lot more people in America and a lot more to do. Here I see a rainy day and I think movies, here streaming didn't really take off, in America I will think where's there a mall to go to."
On one such rainy day, shortly after he had arrived, Homler saw Reese Witherspoon in Wild at the Lido Cinema in Hamilton as one of about 30 in the audience. Asked whether the cinema was busy, Homler said it was, but was quickly told 30 was quite a small turn out in New Zealand.
"I said 30, back home, would have been a good night.
"I try to see two films a month, just whatever is on. I saw Antman last week and I might see an art house film next week."
Homler's favourite films include A Perfect World, Cinema Paradiso, Forrest Gump and Mr Holland's Opus.
Lealand quickly put Homler in touch with film industry historian Allan Webb who owns and runs the five screen theatre The Regent in Te Awamutu. Homler has seen a few films there in the past month and loves the experience.
"When I visit The Regent in Te Awamutu there's always people in that theatre," he said. "Allan has one of the best examples we have of a traditional movie theatre that gives you that cinematic feeling as soon as you go through the doors."
The walls are adorned with cinema posters from yesteryear, the screens are named after other New Zealand theatres that are now closed and each includes elements of the said buildings, such as ceiling and wall friezes.
"There's a lot of interest in this sort of thing," Webb said of Homler's project.
Homler's also been talking to the owners of the three screen Tivoli Cinema in Cambridge, Shane Jarrett and Karen Focas, who where or and he made a short biographical film on yet to be uploaded to their website.
Focas left Hamilton about 30 years ago but returned last year with Jarrett, who was co-owner of ShoreLine Cinema, Waikanae, to establish Trivoli.
"We have platters and cake and things, and we're fully licensed."
The cinema has been busy, she says, and offers mainly art house titles.
"Going out is still a treat. You can't experience what we have here at home. It's very personal and everybody gets treated very well," Focas said.
"Business is very good. It's growing and growing.
She says psychological thriller Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher, was the most popular film of the year.
"It just went off, it was great," she said.
"Paddington was pretty big over Christmas, we had all the grandma's bringing grandkids. Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Woman in Gold were also big films for us.
"I went to the Embassy Cinema in Thames and I don't know if I have seen another town like it. When I was filming there for three hours I did not see anyone under the age of 50."
That's not unusual though.
"Most of the theatre going demographic is the older generation," Homler said.
Embassy Cinema manager David Ritchie said Thames had the largest community of senior citizens in the country.
Cinema attendance depends on what films are playing. "If you have got something they like, they are in and out all the time. Since we upgraded to digital it's been quite good."
Homler is chronicling the more than 100 year old cinema's history in a short film he will gift to Ritchie who will also take part in his documentary film.
So what does the documentary maker think the future holds for the industry?
"Movies are always going to be around as a form of entertainment. It's just the way that we experience them. The experience is going to be different."
And he's not talking about 3D exhibition.
"I am a fan of 3D movies, I really enjoy watching a 3D movie, but it's a fad that's going to pass us by - 3D was around in the 70s and 80s."
There was also a 3D fad in the 1950s.
Some cinemas have already changed.
"A lot of cinemas they advertise as cafes and ask you to come on a Friday night for a wine or beer. There are some fairly posh lounges. It seems they want you to spend just as much time outside of the screening room of their theatre as you are inside. That's the changes we are starting to see," he said.
"The Shared Experience of cinema has kept me engaged because it allows me to be an optimist. Ever since the invention of radio, people have predicted the demise of the movie theatre experience. When a new entertainment technology is introduced to the market, many say 'well, that's the end for cinema'. Yet somehow, movie theatres continue to survive. People love the movie going experience and so do I. Though the experience of visiting a movie theatre may continue change, I believe that cinema will always have a future and I just want to showcase it."
So what does the future hold for the movie industry in New Zealand?
"I don't know," Lealand said.
"It still seems to be reasonably healthy now. I am positive because I can see new cinemas open. It's a wonderful sign."
But he's concerned that the downloaders won't make the switch to the big screen when they get older.
Webb said the cinema industry had been through dark days when television was introduced in New Zealand and again when videos came out.
A late Waihi exhibitor told Webb, "One Saturday night we were full and on the Saturday night afterwards we were empty. It was like turning the tap off."
But Christmas is likely to be busy.
"The next Star Wars is going to be huge," Webb said. "We might even put it in two theatres."
The cast of the original Star Wars trilogy, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, are returning to the silver screen at Christmas in the JJ Abrams directed Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
But most studios were nervous about releasing big films around when it will run.
"They won't put anything against Star Wars," Webb said.