WHEN the Oatmill Cinema Complex opened its doors in December 1997, James Cameron’s Titanic was a box office sensation across the country.
Mount Gambier residents turned out in droves to watch Jack and Rose fall in love on the ill-fated voyage, confirming what cinema manager Shane Fulwood had hoped to be true – that thousands of locals loved the experience of watching a film on the big screen as much as he did.
“I loved going to the movies and I still do, more than I enjoy running a business – if I was out of a job I would come here anyway,” Mr Fulwood said as he settled in on The Border Watch red couch, popcorn in hand.
“It was just convenient that other people were willing to pay for the same experience I was willing to set up as a business.
“I think if you love the service you are delivering, all the other stuff becomes easier to manage and hopefully you will be good at what you’re doing because you understand what you would want as a customer.”
Building the Percy Street complex was the culmination of seven years of planning and preparation, with Mr Fulwood previously operating the business out of the TAFE theatre in the early ’90s.
“I actually got into the industry by accident – I went to high school here in Mount Gambier and had moved to Adelaide for work,” Mr Fulwood explained.
“I still had family here and I visited quite regularly and at that stage the Sturt cinema, which was the last regular cinema, had closed down and I missed the experience of going to the movies when I came back.
“Purely by chance I was walking down a street in Adelaide one day where they hired out 16mm films to oil rigs and schools.
“I hired all the equipment at the TAFE theatre, lost all my money and went from there.”
Regular screenings in the auditorium on a Friday night attracted a loyal group of patrons and when two multiplex cinemas were proposed for Mount Gambier in 1994, Mr Fulwood secured the lease for one of the developments.
Celebrating 20 years at the Percy Street site last month, he said digital technology had now eclipsed manual film projectors.
“We still have the film projectors upstairs too, but it’s very rare to have a film released in the reel format these days,” he said.
“The fact we are now digital presents plenty of opportunities, it means we can do more than just show movies – we have screened a number of sporting and music events.
“In some ways we are competing with streaming services, but I think people will always enjoy the full movie experience – we are here for when people want some escapism.”
Today the cinema employs 18 staff.
“I think we are known for our service – our staff are very welcoming and as accommodating as possible,” Mr Fulwood said.
“Part of the experience is having a conversation at the point of sale – our staff need to have the ability to relate to people and that willingness and desire to connect with people.
“Everything else we can teach on the go.”
He said the business was exploring opportunities to cater to a “higher end of the market”.
“There is a variation of gold class we would like to explore and we need to work out how we would balance that with school holidays where the majority of our audience are kids and exasperated parents,” he said.
“We have a very definite gap in our audience and that is uni students – there is very much an 18 to late 20s age gap that we notice.
“So many of them go and don’t come back until they settle down to raise a family – there are certain films we know will under-perform here because we are missing that demographic.”
Almost 14,000 locals watched Titanic during it’s record-holding 21-week run at the Oatmill and two decades later blockbuster films still draw the biggest crowds.
“The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films were huge during that 10 years or so,” Mr Fulwood said.
“These days the Marvel and Star Wars films are the best performers at our box office.”
He said while managing a regional cinema had a few drawbacks, the benefits far outweighed the negatives.
“In hindsight it was a blessing to establish the business here – we are not in a town big enough to have major competitors so there are no chains here with deeper pockets,” he said.
“We don’t get locked into a particular demographic – we have people who want to see the arthouse type films and families who just want to bring their kids to see the latest Pixar or Disney movie.
“It’s challenging to keep everyone happy, but it means we have a more interesting and diverse workplace.”