More than Meets the Eye: the Suburban Cinema Megaplex as Sensory Heterotopia – Leanne Downing

More Than Meets the Eye

The closing decade of the 20th century witnessed a series of dramatic transformations within global film distribution and exhibition practice. As home theatre technologies began to splinter and protract film spectatorship into diversified sites of consumption, cinema operators registered a significant shift in revenue flow. According to global box office statistics, cinema film rentals plummeted from providing approximately 80% of film distributor’s revenue in 1982 to supplying less than 30% by 1989 (Acland, 2003: 24). The catalyst of this change was, as Charles Acland explains, the “parallel evolution of multiple windows of exhibition and distribution for filmed entertainment” (Acland, 2003: 24). Put simply, diversified platforms of film consumption such as pay television, video and DVD had taken on an increased significance in the global film distribution market.

As competing technologies began to divert profits away from the cinema box office, film distributors attempted to resuscitate what they saw as a waning cinema exhibition market. One way that this was achieved was through the successful bypassing of the 1948 U.S. Paramount decree, which had previously prohibited distribution companies from operating sites of exhibition. This decree had been put in place in order to prevent the nepotistic processes of ‘vertical integration’, whereby exhibitors who held affiliations with major studios were being privileged over smaller, or independent, cinema outlets. When the ruling was nullified in 1986, power was effectively returned to film distributors, allowing them to purchase cinema chains and regain oligopolistic control of the cinema industry.

The implications of these changes were immense. For countries such as Australia , Canada and the UK , corporate mergers (such as the 1989 Warner/Village initiative) meant that local industries were rapidly overpowered by global conglomerates. Independent cinema operators struggled to compete with the consolidatory practices of film distributors and exhibitors; a point ultimately reflected in industry data. Observing the decline of film exhibition venues across the country, the Australian Film Commission noted, “There were 173 businesses in the motion picture exhibition industry at the end of June 2000, 9 percent fewer than at the end of June 1997. The reduction was mainly in small businesses … where the number has fallen from 162 at the end of June 1994 and 126 at the end of June 1997 to 99 at the end of June 2000” (The Australian Film Commission, 2001: 139).

As independent cinemas succumbed, transnational exhibitors (such as Sony and Warner) embarked upon an unprecedented building surge. Between 1994 and 1995, film exhibition companies across the United States , Canada , Europe and Australia began super-sizing their venues and providing an array of sensually gratifying entertainment options. Large format screens, cutting-edge sound technologies and generous seating arrangements were installed and augmented with elaborate décor, café and bar facilities, restaurants, bookshops, video game arcades, and merchandising outlets. By the time the industry peaked in 1999/2000, the business of film exhibition and the act of movie going had profoundly altered. A unique form of sense-oriented film exhibition had been created and it rapidly became known as the megaplex.

Megaplex venues commonly operate as flagships for multinational media networks. Replete with conspicuous displays of corporate logos and promotional tag-lines, megaplexes function as signifiers of important transformations that have taken place within globalized media practice during the past decade. Not the least of these transformations has been the onset of corporate ownership and branding strategies which have both figuratively and literally transformed cinemas into ‘lifestyle complexes’. In commenting on the development of the Jam Factory megaplex in Melbourne, Village-Roadshow’s general manager Mr David Herman succinctly encapsulated this phenomenon when he proclaimed that “the objective was to create Australia’s first non-gambling cinema and lifestyle complex” (Herman, 1998: 21).

With diverse platforms of film consumption (such as DVD and Pay-per-view television) to contend with, mass-media corporations such as Warner have developed an interesting marketing strategy. Rather than compete against home theatre technologies per-se, they have shifted their attention towards rivalling the sensory experiences afforded by home environments. One way that this is achieved is through the integration of practices usually associated with home viewing. Features such as large comfortable seating, multiple food and beverage options and segregated rooms for crying infants have become commonplace within megaplex cinema designs; so too have convenient screening schedules and extended bar facilities. Australian –based company Village Roadshow provide a pertinent case in point:

At Village Cinemas … we like to make our customers feel as comfortable as they do in their own home, but with all the atmosphere, involvement and excitement of a night out at the cinema. Our stadium seating has been designed for maximum comfort and gives everyone an uninterrupted view of the screen. Digital surround sound and world class projection equipment provides you with the thrill of being right in the middle of the action. Nothing beats seeing it on the BIG screen! (Village, 2001: 1).

Such attempts to lure audiences out of their homes on the basis of unparalleled sensory experience signifies one of the most significant transformations in recent cinema history. No longer content to address audiences via high quality audio and visual technologies, transnational media corporations are now marketing cinemas as total sensory environments in which the senses of touch, taste and smell are conceived as crucial elements of the movie-going experience. Yet, to date, this phenomenon has attracted very little sustained academic attention. Having focused extensively on film as a key area of study, much cinema scholarship has avoided analysing the five bodily senses and their intricate relationship with cinematic space. As such, the question of how to theorise megaplex cinema space and its associated sensory manipulations has remained largely unexplored within contemporary academic discourse. This problem has been flagged by phenomenologist Vivian Sobchack who has noted that contemporary understandings of cinematic experiences are commonly impaired by a general academic “embarrassment” at addressing “bodies that act wantonly or crudely at the movies” (Sobchack, 2001: 3).

While many academic theorists of cinema may well be too “embarrassed” to connect sensory experiences with the lucrative profits generated from megaplex cinemas, multinational media networks could hardly be more explicit in pressing their body-focussed agenda. This is clearly evident in the corporate tag-lines of Australia ’s three leading megaplex operators Village, Hoyts and Greater Union. Over the past decade, Village cinemas have purported to be “Where Movies Live”, Hoyts has promised to perpetually take its patrons to the sensory “Maxx” and Greater Union defines its auditoriums as “Senstadiums”, effectively connoting the adrenalin fuelled experience of a sporting arena or rock concert”. Discussing the role of megaplex cinema spaces during the late 1990s, Mr. Russell Scott, the general manager of Australia ’s Greater Union cinema chain, claimed:

Cinemas need to offer something that is better and not available from other forms of entertainment – especially from home entertainment systems. In an attempt to achieve this, cinemas have introduced wider screens and digital sound, as well as better sight lines with stadium seating and more comfortable seats, plus other features such as crying rooms and movie-merchandise counters (Scott, 2000: 12).

By and large, the megaplex industry’s objective to capitalize on sensory arousal is apparent in two distinct forms; sense-oriented marketing campaigns, and industry-based policies pertaining to sensory stimuli such as seating and lighting regulations. In their totality, these initiatives signify the driving force of the megaplex agenda to transform movie going into an entertainment experience that can not be emulated in the domestic sphere.

The Sensory Sell

With regard to advertising, the sensory experiences available within megaplex venues are overtly promoted via the contradictory discourses of ‘intense sensory stimulation’ and ‘subdued sensual refinement’. This is clearly evident in the repeated use of sense-oriented adjectives which promise an entertainment experience that is as ‘extreme’, ‘sensational’ and ‘indulgent’ as it is ‘comfortable’, ‘discerning’ and ‘refined’. The following advertisement for UK-based Ster City megaplex offers a prime example:

Warner-Village Cinemas are designed to bring film fans closer to the magical world of movie-making than ever before. Stadium seating with cup-holder armrests and computer generated sight lines and stadium seating ensure that everyone enjoys an uninterrupted view of the big screen, and all of the screens in all of our cinemas are equipped with the most technologically advanced sound and projection facilities available. DTS, Dolby SRD, Sony’s SDDS or THX compliment crystal clear, vibrant images with digital sound. The combined effect is breathtaking and the result is the most accessible, comfortable, exciting cinema experience imaginable. (Warner-Village, 2003).

The sense-oriented advertising campaigns for Australia ’s Cinema ‘Gold Class’ and ‘Intencity’ venues are palpable. Advertised as the ‘Ultimate Cinema Experience’ cinema Gold Class is a joint venture between the Greater Union corporation and Village Roadshow. Constructed across Australia during the late 1990s, Gold Class venues were designed to address a ‘discerning’ movie-going demographic by deliberately appealing to their five bodily senses. Standard features of the Cinema Gold Class include wall-to-wall screens, digital sound, fully reclining armchairs, personal tables, footrests, waiter service, and a fully licensed bistro. Since its inception in 1997, the Cinema Gold Class concept has been developed in fifteen countries, including sites in Hong Kong , Germany , Switzerland , Britain and Singapore .

The promotional flyer for Cinema Gold Class is at pains to endorse the ‘good taste’ and ‘refinement’ of the venues. Looking like an amalgam of a first-class airline brochure and a fancy restaurant menu, the flyer readily touts discourses of exclusivity, indulgence and success. For just over twice the price of an ordinary cinema ticket, audience members are discursively ‘transformed’ into ‘clients’ who are treated ‘like a star’ with full waiter service: “Just imagine lying back in a $1400 fully reclining armchair, nibbling on delicious snacks, sipping a glass of wine, all while you watch the latest blockbusters on the big screen – it’s the ultimate luxury” (Village, 2001: 2).

At the other end of the sensory spectrum, Village’s video-game alcove, Intencity, offers a younger demographic a protracted movie going experience that is equally focussed on pleasuring the senses. In stark contrast to the ‘subdued’ tones of Cinema Gold Class, the youth-oriented Intencity venues pride themselves on being excessively loud and gaudy. At least one promotional campaign for these venues asks young audiences to “Imagine playing the latest hot interactive games plus all your favourites at your next party. Race to win on the latest rally and racing games! Climb! Dive! Roll! Kick! Aim! And Spin Hard! to win against all your friends! … Intencity – Go Hard Or Go Home!” (Village, 2001: 2).

Rather than focussing explicitly on the appeal of individual films, megaplex operators now effectively market the pleasures of ‘movie-going’ as a unique leisure activity. As Acland has succinctly noted, this initiative provided a “permanent marketing campaign” for a globalized film exhibition industry, irrespective of what films happened to be showing at the box office on any given day (Acland, 2003: 92). Such initiatives are reflected in the deliberate merging of seemingly disparate leisure and retail activities whereby audiences are encouraged to not only see a film, but also engage in a series of activities and services such as shopping, dining, health and beauty treatments, gambling, video-game playing and in some cases, gym workouts, swimming and miniature golf. The following excerpt from Village Roadshow’s 1998 annual report is explicit in this regard:

[In] broadening the cinema going experience … [Village] aims to create an environment of quality entertainment themeing and ancillary lifestyle retailing, thus providing a consistently high level of incentive for people to leave their homes for cinema anchored destinations. (Village Roadshow, 1999: 19)

Venue-specific policies pertaining to sensory arousal also play a significant role in sustaining the megaplex industry. This is mostly achieved through a kind of sensory-packaging in which a collection of place-specific sights, sounds, tastes, smells and tactilities are ‘branded’. Under this scenario, company logos are used as indexical signs for the types of sensory experiences (such as the smell of popcorn or particular seating designs) that the megaplex chain sells as its own. As Hannigan has noted in relation to theme-parks, such strategies require consumers to surrender an astonishing amount of control over their “freedom of movement and of imagination” in return for the assured certainty and predictability of a purchasable form of sensory arousal (Hannigan, 1998: 81).

Concomitantly, megaplex décor and design are purposely commissioned to mirror the agenda of sensory stimulation. Drawing heavily on postmodern architectural styles, megaplex interiors commonly present a semiotic pastiche of structural designs, geographic locales and historical eras, mixed with an abundance of movie and mass media themes. As the accompanying images of the UK based Ster City venue illustrate, megaplex environs ultimately demarcate themselves as unique venues of film exhibition through an overt merging of incommensurate media and cultural references. Within the enclosed spaces of Warner’s Ster City, references to the 1960’s cartoon series The Flintstones brush up against reproduced Ancient Greek statues, and imperialist impression of ‘The Orient’ and a miniaturized New Orleans street scape. Such designs are evocative of John Hannigan’s observations of contemporary themeparks which attempt to industrialize the pleasure of entertainment spaces by tapping into “a growing market for ‘experiences’ that are otherwise unattainable by virtue of geography, cost or historical disappearance” (Hannigan, 1998: 72).

The notion that sensory cinema experiences can be manufactured within a ‘controlled space’ has led to the mass production of homogenised, hyper-sensory experiences that are ultimately aimed at enhancing consumerism and directing customer behaviour. Commonly situated within the segregated spaces of large shopping malls, megaplexes are able to stimulate and control the audiences’ senses by ‘walling- off’ the outside world. Literally enveloped by circles of asphalt and concrete carparks, much of the power of megaplex environments rests in their capacity to provide a hermetically sealed entertainment spacecapable of ordering and controlling spatial and sensory variables such as consumer flow, temperature, air quality, sound reverberation and lighting. Borrowing heavily from shopping mall and themepark designs, megaplexes use spatial segregation as an efficient means of protracting the cinematic experience far beyond the act of simply watching a film. Using well-placed promotional video screens, larger than life statues, and elaborate décor and interior design, megaplexes work to create a sense of continuity between the on-screen world of Hollywood blockbusters and the retail-focused space of the megaplex foyer.

Such spaces are proficient at providing what Paul Rodaway has referred to as “a reduction and simplification of reality” in which “human control over the physical, mental, social and cultural world becomes ever more complete and human experience … is increasingly … synthesised and manufactured by human design” (Rodaway, 1994: 173). In creating sensing spaces reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (Huxley, 1932), megaplex operators have managed to produce a sensory entertainment environment that is more real, and more perfect than can be organically sustained. As one megaplex interior designer claimed, “The trick is you have a totally controlled environment without anybody knowing it.” (Hindes, 1999: 16).


The notion of a controlled entertainment space readily lends itself to Foucauldian analysis. In particular, Michel Foucault’s work on heterotopia provides a useful theoretical framework for the elucidation of megaplex environs because it enables an understanding of cinema spaces in which traditionally disparate modes of spatial, sensory and commercial activities coalesce. First published in the French journal Architecture-Movement – Continuité under the title ‘Des Espaces Autres’, and later in English as ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias’ (Foucault, 1997: 348), Foucault’s singular essay on heterotopia has become a touchstone for academic discussions of social space. Not part of his official caucus of work, ‘Des Espaces Autres’ was the basis of a lecture given by Foucault in March of 1967 and was released into the public domain shortly before his death in 1984. In recent years, it has been taken up by architects, cultural geographers and sociologists and considered to be one of his most revealing and influential texts on the significance of space and human interaction. From the outset, Foucault forges a link between the sensory body and social space by way of the term heterotopia. Historically used in anatomical writings to refer to parts of the body which are missing, out of place, or, in the case of tumours, alien, heterotopia is a Greek term meaning other place, with hetero meaning ‘other’ and topia meaning ‘place’. Foucault’s major contribution to the term was to connect it to considerations of social spaces, which simultaneously belong to, yet seem ‘out of place’ or alien in everyday life.   Throughout ‘Of Other Spaces’, Foucault defines his primary interest in space as pertaining only to those social spaces whose existence works to “suspend, neutralise or invert” existing social arrangements (Foucault, 1997: 351). That is, spaces, which appear to reflect social mores, while at the same time, functioning to contradict or expose their very operation. Foucault identifies two such spaces, utopias and heterotopias. According to Foucault, utopias function as dream-spaces into which collectively held social fantasies are projected. They have no actual location in the ‘real’ world of physical space and exist solely as manifestations of society’s quest for perfection. As idealised, fictional spaces, utopias function in a “direct or inverse analogy with the real spaces of society” (Foucault, 1997: 351). They represent “society brought to perfection” and thus, remain fundamentally unreal (Foucault, 1997: 351). Foucault’s second group, heterotopias, constitute a series of ‘real’ spaces that occupy key roles in society, yet function under a kind of “counter arrangement”, whereby their presence effectively challenges or overturns all other social relations. Foucault claimed that these spaces are at once outside of pre-existing social arrangements, yet fundamentally localisable in physical and social space:   [Heterotopias are]…a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. (Foucault, 1997: 351).

In Of Other Spaces, Foucault identifies the cinema as a heterotopic space that is “absolutely other with respect to all the arrangements that they reflect and of which they speak.” (Foucault, 1997: 352). Drawing on the principle that heterotopias are capable of juxtaposing in a single real place multiple sites that are in themselves incompatible, Foucault conceptualised the cinema as “a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of three-dimensional space” (352). While such configurations are consistent with the generic spatial requirements of film projection, it is my contention that Foucault’s notion of heterotopia can be extended beyond the auditorium and into an analysis of the megaplex.

The notion that cinema venues can exist as heterotopic spaces has been alluded to by David Nasaw. In Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements, Nasaw argues that the creation of the Picture Palaces during the late 1910s was all about stimulating and pleasuring the audience (Nasaw, 1993). Unlike the makeshift nickelodeons, picture palaces were large public spaces with seating capacities that regularly accommodated upwards of three thousand people. Replete with ornate architecture, elaborate interior facades, uniformed ushers and specifically designed orchestra pits, picture palaces were marketed as ‘palaces’ for the people and were often decorated to resemble exotic locales such as Egyptian temples or Chinese pagodas. Writing on the elaborate nature of the picture palace, cinema historian Roberta Pearson claims that they “provided environments nearly as fantastic as those projected onto the screen” (Pearson, 1996: 37). In keeping with this claim, Nasaw has noted that the actual spaces of film exhibition were so crucial in sustaining the industry that, “a quarter of managers surveyed in an exhibition poll in 1922 reported that it made absolutely no difference at the box office whether the feature attraction was any good or not” (Nasaw, 1993: 225).

The cinema industry’s ability to create heterotopic interior spaces was further manifest in the development of atmospheric cinemas. Essentially derivatives of the picture palace, atmospheric cinemas were designed to give the impression of opulence to an audience that had found itself in the throes of the ‘roaring twenties’ economic boom. In direct response to the nickelodeon era’s issues of overcrowding and lack of air-flow, atmospheric cinemas created artificial summer garden environments in their auditoriums. Australian theatre historian Simon Brand notes:

…these cinemas were designed to give the impression of being in the open air, in a magnificent garden while enjoying the film. The entire ceiling was designed to resemble a perfect blue sky, dotted with wispy clouds. The walls were usually adorned with small rotundas, statues, niches, alcoves and columns –in short, a riot of architectural embellishments (Brand, 1984: 96).

In recent years, social commentators have identified a number of similarities between early forms of film exhibition (nickelodeon and picture palace) and contemporary megaplex space. In observing the interactive film experiences now being offered by transnational cinema venues, Miriam Hansen has noted that today’s cinema environments are creating “a certain dėjá vu effect”, whereby the contemporary experience of movie going appears to be reverting to a state reminiscent of early film exhibition practice (Hansen, 1994: 137). Hansen points out that the transitory and ephemeral practices of the pre-nickelodeon era are once again mushrooming as postmodern exhibitors focus on providing their audiences with sensational and increasingly fragmented experiences. The validity of this argument is apparent in relation to megaplex cinema space. Like the early nickelodeons, megaplex cinemas emphasise notions of showmanship and spectacle. Moreover, the ready availability of ‘distractions’ (through games, rides, music, food etc), creates a movie-going experience that is congruent with the sensory stimulations of early film exhibition practice.

In Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern , Anne Friedberg has pertinently identified shopping malls as “mixed use heterotopias” in which a synthesis of disparate commercial activities, (such as shopping and tourism), are able to take place (Friedberg, 1993). For Friedberg, the power of the shopping mall exists in its capacity to offer consumers a socially legitimated sense of ‘elsewhere’ in which acts of hedonistic consumption can be carried out, “The shopping mall cinema offers a safe transit to other spaces, other times, other imaginaries. These “elsewheres” are available to the consumer in a theatrical space where psychic transubstantiation is possible through purchase (Friedberg, 1993: 120).

Megaplex cinemas similarly utilise the notion of ‘elsewhere’ in order to create a sensuously predictable (and therefore comfortable) consumer environment. Temperature controlled interiors work to defy seasons and the nuances of local urban environments; vaulted glass ceilings disperse natural light; powerful air-conditioning systems remove unwanted odours ; and diligent processes of security surveillance strive to prohibit inappropriate or violent customer behavior. Such environmental controls are reminiscent of Foucault’s claim that heterotopia commonly create spaces that are “as perfect, meticulous, and well arranged as ours is disordered, ill-conceived and in a sketchy state” (Foucault, 1997: 356).

In forging a binaric relationship between the inside and outside world, megaplexes maintain a vested economic interest in promoting their interiors as safe, reliable, clean and orderly. The outside world, in contrast, is constructed as dangerous, messy, and unpredictable. Like the urban arcades which ‘protected’ the nineteenth century bourgeois from the realities of the city street, megaplexes promise their consumers an environment that suspends anxieties about personal safety and the pressing social realities of (sub)urban life. As Friedberg has argued, such controls “enforce a blindness to a range of urban blights [such as] the homeless, beggars, crime, traffic and even weather” (Friedberg, 1993: 121).

Within these ‘other’ spaces signifiers of disparate eras, locations, films and media forms are merged together to create a heterogeneous muddle of signs and meanings. For example, at Village Cinema’s Jam Factory location in the Melbourne suburb of South Yarra , a gigantic frieze of a Roman chariot race brushes up against a larger-than-life sculpture of Charlie Chaplin, which gazes wistfully towards a Borders book emporium. Video game arcades, African craft shops and music superstores share retail space with elaborate cinema merchandising counters, a pancake house, jewellery stalls and a multiculturally inspired food court. In their totality, such spaces take on their own meanings and social significances which are ultimately lived through and negotiated by the sensory bodies of movie-goers.

Significantly, the muddle created through merging disparate signifiers of retail and leisure is not so random as to distract customers from the practice of consumerism. Far from creating an un-navigatable collage of unrelated signifiers, megaplex environments utilise processes of similitude and juxtaposition in a manner conducive to optimum financial gain. Thus, a closer consideration of megaplex space reveals that even the most desultory array of objects display syntagmatic links. For the most part, these ‘connections’ tend to be loosely organised around a ‘theme’, specifically designed to enhance consumer’s feelings of immersion in an Other space. Although, as Acland has argued “themed spaces, whether cinemas, restaurants, or stores, are not necessarily executed in a coherent fashion. Often they are a mishmash of references loosely organised around a set of texts or topics, but which are rarely completely congruous” (Acland, 2003: 208).

As heterotopic spaces of sensory manipulation and control, megaplex venues signify a profound transformation in film exhibition practice. In drawing heavily on pre-classical modes of film exhibition and by privileging notions of incongruous sensory stimulation, megaplex spaces offer audiences a post-modern pastiche of cinema experiences that effectively transcend conventional notions of time and space, inside and outside. Fuelled by the economic realities of globalized media practices, the rise of the megaplex offers film theorists an excellent example of industry transformation at work.


The megaplex industry’s deliberate emphasis on sight, sound, touch, taste and smell is central to its success. In deliberately creating cinema environments that are bigger, brighter, louder, cleaner and more comfortable than many other platforms of film consumption, transnational film exhibitors have effectively transformed movie-going into a protracted and sensually engaging entertainment experience. In providing a programmed retail experience that constructs an illusion of sensory freedom and abundance within an overall framework of homogeneity, megaplexes function as heterotopic event spaces in which the pleasures of moviegoing are extended beyond the screen.


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Brand, Simon (1984) Picture Palaces and Flea Pits: Eighty Years of Australians at the Pictures. Sydney : Dreamweaver Books.

Foucault, Michel (1997) ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias’ Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, (ed) Neil Leach, London : Routledge, pp 348 -379.

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Herman David (1998) in A. Catalano, ‘Village to extend Jam Factory’ The Age Wednesday, August 5 .

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Village Cinemas Jam Factory (2001) Promotional Brochure Melbourne, Australia, Village Roadshow (1999), 1998 Annual Report <> accessed July 5 th 2000.

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Author Biography

Leanne Downing is a Research Fellow in the Cinema Studies Program at the University of Melbourne.