Cinema owner Gus Berger has spent years selling tickets to other people’s films but never thought he would sell out cinemas all over town with his own full-length feature.
The Lost City Of Melbourne is a critical success that is quietly turning into a commercial one.
The film began as a creative project for the small business owner during Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdowns and shifted into a fully-fledged film showing on 13 screens across Victoria and Tasmania.
Cinemas in South Australia and NSW will soon follow, with hopes it could screen on a streaming platform.
“No way – I didn’t think it was going to do this well,” Mr Berger told AAP from the Thornbury Picture House, the building he painstakingly transformed from a 99-year-old garage into an independent cinema in Melbourne’s north.
“I just didn’t think that it would be at a level that we’d be selling out cinema sessions.”
The film tells the story of what happened to grand buildings constructed at the height of the gold rush and the almost unopposed movement to tear them down in the 1960s.
It may sound like a niche audience offering but it’s doing what University of Melbourne film academic Kirsten Stevens calls “good business”, averaging $2800 per screen.
Ticket sales for films are usually strong in their opening week then plummet, but this one is holding steady after two weeks.
“The box office numbers are really exciting. Not in their totals necessarily, but in what it says about a per-screen average,” Dr Stevens said.
“It’s basically doing similar average across those screens as a really big film like George Miller’s 3000 Years Of Longing.
“For a really small documentary, that is big news.”
Dr Stevens said the film’s release came as Australia entered a period of change after the pandemic.
“This isn’t coming off major star power. You don’t have a big name associated with it,” she said.
“(It is) a period where we’re looking at something like the city of Melbourne being emptied out of businesses, as being not quite the vibrant space it was back in 2019, and this film really resonates.”
The Lost City Of Melbourne is ranked second at the Cinema Nova box office, one of Melbourne’s largest independent cinemas.
“The word of mouth for the film has been extraordinary. The film has been steadily growing in terms of its interest,” CEO Kristian Connelly said.
“It’s quite unusual that we see such a minor budget or micro-budget films such as this perform at this level.”
The documentary focuses on the history of Melbourne’s old picture palaces, many of which were destroyed.
As Australians flocked to movie theatres during the golden age of Hollywood, there were up to five cinemas in some suburbs.
Mr Berger is grateful to the independent cinemas that recognised his film’s potential.
“It’s not really about the financial rewards. It’s more about the fact that you’ve made something that’s resonated and connected with your audience,” he said.
He hopes his success encourages more independent filmmakers to pursue their passion projects and reminds the industry not to dismiss smaller projects.
“What a film lacks in budget, if it makes up for in heart, it can work,” he said.