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Cinema industry trends
admissions and key events, 1901–1932

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Year Admissions (m) Population (m) Admissions per capita  
1901 0.3*1 3.8 0.1 During the early 1900s, Australians in rural areas relied on travelling exhibitors and variety shows for access to moving pictures. One such exhibitor was the Corrick family, who, from 1902, toured Australia with their variety show and film projector for 13 years, amassing a library of over 100 titles (King & Hodson, undated).
1905 1.3*2 4.0 0.3
    In 1906, T.J. West was the first Australian to construct a purpose-built hall for exhibiting motion pictures. Before this, films had been exhibited at a range of alternative venues, including converted shops, rented halls and tents (Shirley & Adams 1983, 15; Collins 1987, 5, 10). Also in 1906, Australia produced what is believed to be the first feature-length fictional film in the world, The Story of the Kelly Gang, directed by the Tait brothers. The film was released the same year, becoming a success in both Australian and British theatres and recouping its reported budget of £1,000 many times over (Shirley & Adams 1983, 16-19; Murray 1994, 7, 10). Between 1906 and 1914 (outbreak of World War I), motion picture exhibition in Australia flourished. In 1910, T.J. West controlled 14 permanent cinemas throughout Australia and his venues were estimated to attract a nightly audience of 20,000. By 1911, West’s principal competitor, Cozens Spencer, also had a string of cinemas across the country. Capacities of the West and Spencer theatres typically ranged from 2,000 to 4,000 seats. In these early years, ticket prices in Australia were comparatively high, around 12 times higher than in the US. Australian prices ranged from one to three shillings depending on the location of the seats and up to four for a reserved seat (Shirley & Adams 1983, 22-23; Collins 1987, 7; Sabine 1995, 33).
    In 1909, entrepreneur J.D. Williams opened Australia’s first continuous cinema. Admission was relatively cheap at threepence for adults and a penny for children, and shows ran from 11 am to 11 pm. By 1915, there were close to 20 continuous cinemas operating in Sydney and attracting large audiences, which forced prices down across the industry (Shirley & Adams 1983, 22-23; Collins 1987, 11).
    In 1911, there were over 100 permanent and temporary cinemas in Sydney. In the following year, there were reportedly 25 permanent cinemas in Melbourne with a combined seating capacity of 50,000.
    In 1912, the first colour films were exhibited in Australia. These short films showing Australian scenery and industries were shot by the US-based National Colour Kinematograph Company using its patented Kinemacolor technology. However, due to the high cost of the colour projection system and the lack of films, colour films were not widely exhibited in Australia for another 40 years (see 1954 to 1974) (Bertrand 1989, 51).
1913 15.6*3 4.8 3.3 In 1913, the Melbourne Argus reported that Saturday night admissions at Melbourne's city and suburban cinemas were averaging around 65,000 (Shirley & Adams 1983, 23).
1920 67.5 5.4 12.6 In 1919/20, cinema admissions reach 67.5 million. In 1919, there were 750 picture theatres in Australia (Baxter 1970, 28, sourced from an article by Michael Thornhill in the Current Affairs Bulletin, 1967). In 1919, direct taxes, generally referred to as ‘entertainment taxes’, were introduced on cinema tickets by the Commonwealth Government and applied under various schemes from 1919 to 1953. See Entertainment taxes as a source of admissions data.
1921 68.0 5.5 12.5 By 1921, cinema had become the most popular form of entertainment in Australia. The cinema made the largest contribution to entertainment tax receipts in that year, with 68 million admissions compared to less than 16 million for the next two most popular activities combined – live theatre and the horse races. Cinema-going was also becoming increasingly suburbanised. In NSW, there were over 11 million admissions at suburban cinemas in 1921, compared with less than 8 million at city cinemas (Collins 1987, 3, 29; Sabine 1995, 36). It is estimated that, during the 1920s among a population of in a population of just over 6 million, there were 2.25 million cinema admissions each week, equating to an annual total of 117 million (Collins 1987, 17).
1927 110.0 6.2 17.8 There were 110 million admissions and 1,250 cinemas in Australia in 1927 (Royal Commission 1928, 10, 14).
1928 187.0*4 6.3 29.7 In 1928, the arrival of commercial talking pictures provided a massive boost for cinema attendances. Taxable admissions to the cinema increased by over 70 per cent, while admissions for every other taxed amusement declined (Collins 1987, 16). Experimental films with synchronised sound had been first shown in Australia in the late 1890s. The films were played on converted Kinetoscope machines (known as Kinetophones) that were fitted with cylinder phonograph mechanisms. Only 45 Kinetophones were sold worldwide and just five reached Australia. The quality of the dialogue sync was poor and, as a result, these machines and their films never became popular (Long 1993a, 40).
1930 131.0*5 6.5 20.2 By early 1930, the effect of the Depression began to be felt in the cinema industry. By mid-1931, profits for cinema exhibitors were at their lowest level for five years resulting in staff retrenchments and salary reductions (Shirley & Adams 1983, 108).
1932 65.5*6 6.6 10.0 In 1932, taxable admissions to the cinema fell by 46 per cent (Collins 1987, 16-17).
    By March 1936, Australia had 1,334 cinemas, all of them wired for sound. Australia was one of the first countries in the world to fully adopt sound (Shirley & Adams 1983, 104). Between 1938 and 1940, a ‘general downturn in exhibition’ was reported, with films taking longer to return profits (Shirley & Adams 1983, 156).

Source: See About the data.

* Denotes Screen Australia estimate.
1. 1901: 260,000, based on an estimate of 5,000 admissions per week.
2. 1905: 1,300,000, based on an estimated 25,000 admissions per week (Baxter 1970, 10-11; while this text does not provide weekly or annual admissions figures, it does quote admissions for individual cinemas during the period).
3. 1913: 15.6 million, based on 300,000 admissions per week (Melbourne Argus, 25 October 1913, reported in Shirley & Adams 1983, 23).
4. 1928: 187 million, based on 110 million admissions in 1927 (Royal Commission 1928) and an increase of 70 per cent in 1928 (Collins 1987, 16). No allowance made for admissions exempt from entertainment tax (see Entertainment taxes as a source of admissions data).
5. 1930: 131 million, based on a decline of 30 per cent on the attendances in 1928. No allowance made for admissions exempt from entertainment tax (see Entertainment taxes as a source of admissions data).
6. Screen Australia estimated admissions in 1932 are based on a decline of 50 per cent in the attendances in 1930. No allowance made for the admissions exempt from entertainment tax (see Entertainment taxes as a source of admissions data).