by Don Groves
Bob Parr has been a stalwart of the Australian cinema industry for 60 years. He is now senior adviser for Wallis Cinemas after serving as program manager for four decades. Established in 1956, the South Australian company operates four cinemas, one drive-in and an outdoor cinema. He was awarded the Order of Australia medal in 2011 in recognition of his service to the community as a contributor to charitable fundraising.
Photo: Bob Parr with Program Manager Sasha Close
Q: When did you start in the film industry and in what position?
A: I started in the industry when I was 12-years-old, on March 8 1957, as a tray boy on the opening night of the Wallis Hi-Line Drive-In. My father tried to talk me out of it, saying there is no future in it, as did many others. Sixty years later that prophecy still hasn’t come true. It is a great industry.
Q: What have been the biggest changes you have seen in the cinema business?
A: Technically digital, but release patterns were a major game changer. Until the early eighties all films were released exclusively in the city and the suburbs followed eight weeks later. This was the impetus which created the suburban multiplexes that replaced all the single screens in the suburbs and provincial towns.
Q: Which films are most proud of in being able to find audiences?
A: We were the first to try The Rocky Horror Picture Show late nights at our Wallis Chelsea Cinema. It ran for five years and four months.
Q: Wallis Cinemas has long supported Australian films. Is that a company policy or more driven by your belief that most Aussie films need all the help they can get?
A: A little bit of both. There have been many very good Australian films that do need help. The stand out for me was Strictly Ballroom which was rejected by the majors. Ronin Films called me and we had it exclusively at our cinemas.
That relationship later gave us the world premiere of Shine at Wallis Academy Cinema. Ironically we had screened Scott Hicks’ first feature Freedom when the film critic from the Murdoch afternoon paper called and said this guy deserves support and if you screen it we will give it as much support as we can.
Q: What are the challenges of programming in an era when the blockbusters are taking more of the business and the smaller/medium films are struggling or vanishing?
A: We are strong believers in diversity to make our cinemas more interesting for a broader demographic. We understand the blockbusters are our bread and butter but a large percentage of an ageing population aren’t interested. Having these films disappear is a concern. Free-to-air TV has relied too much on reality shows and slowly they are losing viewers. Consequently it is a must to do what we can. Currently Lion is a prime example of what can happen with good marketing and support from cinemas. The same with Hidden Figures.
Q: The cinema has seen off every competitive challenge, from TV through VHS, DVDs and now streaming. Are you confident the big screen will continue as the first window and endure for many years?
A: We can’t take that for granted but have to fight for common sense. All we need is to have good films, good cinemas and good service and stay on top of those with little vision and we have a good future.
Q: Online movie piracy is a constant threat. How important are site-blocking orders and the upcoming consumer education campaign from Creative Content Australia in persuading more people to pay for content?
A: It is a very serious problem. At one country town in SA, on the opening weekend of Fifty Shades Darker the film was shown at ’hen’s parties’ at more than one house. Online sites were streaming The Lego Batman Movie weeks before the Australian release.
Three people in this town are selling set top boxes for illegal streaming and they are advertising on Facebook the titles that you could see. The law doesn’t cover these turds selling the set top boxes. However they are aiding and abetting a crime. I know the authorities ably supported by (Village Roadshow’s) Graham Burke are trying to get the laws changed to make this a crime.