Big tales from the small screen

Ian_Mornington Cinemas_JarrydBravoIf you haven’t been to the Mornington cinema yet, you have never really finished your maiden tour. With 3 screens and fully digital technology, Ian McCann will be happy to have you almost any night of the week. It doesn’t take long before you are on a first name basis with the small business owner on Main Street, Mornington.

“Honestly, I think a lot of people have been coming here for a very long time. You’ll learn their names sooner or later… it’s an intimate little town.” But Ian wasn’t always so heavily invested with the day-to-day of the business. He held a management position at Channel Ten while his father got the place started… which, by the sound of it, took some effort.

“The only time in my life where I’ve ever driven past a theatre and not stopped, was the grungy Mornington one. It was only four years old yet looked unloved, uninviting, and rather unattractive in general!”

So he bought the place, spruced it up a little and, with a little help from his folks, turned a failed Main Street business into a unique and still-successful viewing experience. It proved affirming of Mornington’s hold over Ian and his family’s life. While his mother was born in the former “Bush Hospital,” he and his brethren were raised up in Bentleigh.

Wherever he was, Ian has always had a passion for film. Walking through the hallways behind and between his three screens, remnants of the analogue age reveal themselves in equal proportion to digital components. It’s surprising just how much space a 35mm reel takes up in the real world.

But he remembers his first day like it was yesterday. “On the first night I came in, the programming… it was all wrong. The show opened with Breaking Ground, and the supporting feature was Porridge! Who’s going to hang around to see those two on the same night?! But, the double feature in those days, that was how we did it.”

It helped a lot to have the sympathetic ear of his parents when starting out. “Mum and Dad were really supportive of me, Dad even retired just to give me a hand. But on our first weekend, I said to Dad, ‘I’ll be happy to get 30 or 35 tonight.’ We got 223, in a theatre that was used to seeing eight or nine people a show. I was ecstatic!”

The inevitable move to digital, however, was a slightly less pleasant affair. Apart from the sheer cost of setting up even a single viewing theatre, the maintenance was something he admits he’ll struggle with on his own. He has technicians on retainer, but digital equipment – especially complex digital equipment that is purpose-built to handle terabytes of data – is costly to maintain. It’s one of the few things around the shop that he doesn’t actually do himself.

Probably just as well – cinema complexes are no small investment, and to void a warranty by attempting repairs on one’s own might not be the wisest idea. Then again, “stringing up one continuous piece of film all the way around the staff access areas for a double feature that you can’t play more than four minutes apart, is tedious, and a little wasteful. What you lose through digital in impersonality, you more than make up for in convenience.”

His closest comparison in terms of business and operations was probably with Robert Kirby, who ran the four-screen cinema divided by Nepean Highway, right in the middle of Frankston back in the Quest building’s heyday. He’d refused digital from day one, and even managed to undercut the new AMC theatre on ticket prices for a little while. But AMC won the day, and it cost Ian’s Frankston counterpart a lot. “I have a feeling the outcome would’ve been similar here had a cinema opened up at Centro,” Ian presciently reflects.

But he’s still kicking, even though the move to digital alone cost tens of thousands of dollars, a necessity realised at the point where Ian was running out of new reels to rig up. But it’s an investment that shows faith in the future, and in the willingness of the bulk of us to pay a fair price for a quality night out at a time where high-definition content can be downloaded in a matter of minutes in the comfort of one’s own home.

And though you’d think it quiet during the week, “Monday is actually one of my business days,” says Ian. “On occasion, we’ve sold too many tickets… this little staff viewing area gets filled with extra seats!”

The place hasn’t been the same since he lost his wife Tessa last year. “We basically split the duties 50/50, and while I just can’t do everything she used to do… I’m getting by.” The thought of selling up did cross his mind “many times. Many times I thought about that. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised it was a childhood dream I had to keep following.”

They were, quite literally, a dynamic duo, and having the theatre all to yourself can be depressing. But with his level of stamina and a little bit of luck, he’ll be showing films in town for years to come. Main Street wouldn’t be the same without his little slice of culture – open most evenings, Ian is more than happy to show you to your seat.

As published in Peninsula Essence Magazine – Spring 2015

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