Vegas on the Yarra: Situating Melbourne’s Crown Entertainment Complex – Leanne Downing

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“Dinner and a themed, interactive, location-based entertainment attraction, anyone?

During the mid 1990s, a series of multi-lateral trade agreements hit Melbourne’s cinema industry with an almost terminal velocity. Fuelled by the vertical integration of global film exhibition and distribution sectors, the urban geography of Melbourne’s screen culture transformed from a diverse assortment of independently owned and operated picture houses into an oligopoly of large-scale ‘retail entertainment destinations’.  Nowhere have the affects of this transformation been more apparent than in the Crown Entertainment Complex; Melbourne’s premiere cinema-anchored retail hub. This article considers the Crown Complex as a paragon of Melbourne’s changing screen landscape. Specifically, it explores the role that Crown has played in spearheading a new type of screen environment; one that is primarily concerned with the promotion of movie-going as a multi-sensory entertainment event.

A World Of Entertainment

In May 1997, former Crown Limited Chairman Lloyd Williams accomplished his lifelong ambition to build a world-class retail entertainment destination in the heart of Melbourne. Replete with a massive, multi-level casino, a five storey atrium, three luxury hotels, forty bars, three nightclubs, twenty six restaurants, five thousand car spaces, two levels of designer retail outlets and a fourteen screen cinema megaplex, the Crown Complex is now the largest cinema-anchored retail entertainment destination in the Southern Hemisphere.  Spanning the equivalent of two city blocks, Crown functions as an around-the-clock, 365-day- a-year entertainment hub.

The Crown Complex currently attracts over fifteen million visitors per year and provides work for 7,500 employees, making it Victoria’s largest single employer. It also operates its own staff training college; an interstate bus program for elderly visitors, and a curiously named ‘Crown Customer Support Centre’ where problem gamblers can seek on-site assistance. According to the promotional copy on Crown’s website, “There is always something happening at Crown. From live entertainment to themed displays and riverside festivals, Crown truly is A World of Entertainment.” (Crown, 2007). 

Today, this ‘world of entertainment’ is reliant upon two recreational anchors which ensure sustained pedestrian flow to Crown’sancillary stores and services. To the east is Australia’s largest gaming floor which stretches for almost half a kilometre and contains 350 gambling tables and 2500 gaming machines; while to the west is a massive multi-screen Village Roadshow Crown Cinema megaplex, with six ‘luxury’ Gold Class cinemas in which audiences are encouraged to recline in wide armchairs whilst enjoying an array of gourmet food and beverage options. The successful confluence of these previously disparate leisure activities (gambling, shopping and movie-going) represents Australia’s most significant foray into the Vegas-style world of cinema-anchored retail entertainment destinations; and its affects on local screen culture are palpable.

Strategic Manoeverings: Village Roadshow And Crown

A defining feature of the Crown Entertainment Complex is its reliance on global media giant Village Roadshow.In order to appreciate the dramatic impact that the Crown Complex has had Melbourne’s local screen environment, it is necessary to provide a context for how Village Roadshow ltd., came to dominate Australia’s screen landscape. Pertinently, the catalyst behind Village Roadshow’s industrial dominance came not from Australia, but from a series of multi-lateral trade agreements that swept the U.S. film exhibition industry between 1986 and 1998.

During the late 1980s, several film distribution companies challenged and successfully nullified a forty five year U.S. Supreme Court ruling which prevented film distributors from operating sites of film exhibition (Acland, 2003: 86). Known as the 1948 Paramount Decree, this ruling had been established to prevent large film distribution companies from monopolising the cinema industry through nepotistic film distribution strategies. When the ruling was overturned in 1986, distribution companies such as Warner quickly regained control over local and international cinema markets via a series of corporate mergers and multi-lateral trade agreements. This resulted in the re-emergence of an impenetrable and highly oligopolistic cinema market, and a monumental decline in independent exhibition outlets across the globe.

In 1989 Warner capitalised on its vertical integration options by joining forces with Village Roadshow ltd., which in-turn acquired majority holdings in Greater Union, Birch Caroll and Coyle and the traditionally art-house cinema group Palace.  With transnational conglomerates now dominating Australia’s exhibition and distribution circuits, Melbourne’s film industry morphed at lightning speed.  According to The Australian Film Commission, the total number of Australian exhibition outlets plummeted from 162 in June of 1994 to just 99 at the end of June 2000 (The Australian Film Commission, 2001: 139).

This decline was paralleled by a series of formal complaints from local exhibitors who believed that they were being forced to wait weeks after release dates before they could access particular films from major distributors. The general thrust of these grievances was that major distributors were colluding against independent exhibitors and effectively squeezing them out of the market. As one exhibitor put it, “We understood that were coming into a close knit and cosy industry and because of that we saw an opportunity to be competitive; what we didn’t foresee was that the majors would merge to become one” (Hawkins, 1996). On the back of similar complaints, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission conducted an industry-wide report into national film distribution and exhibition practices and eventually conceded that:

The establishment of two major distributors, controlling the output of more than one major US studio, has led to film distribution in Australia being a tightly oligopolistic market… More complaints were received about Village Roadshow’s behaviour than any other distributor  (Jones, 1998: 2).

For many independent exhibitors, the A.C.C.C. report did little to assuage the rapid and unexpected financial losses that were being incurred. Hardest hit amongst these were the smaller businesses (generally those with an income of less than $100,000), which plummeted by 65% between 1997 and 2000 (The Australian Film Commission, 2001: 139). Richard Sowada, Head of Film Programs at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image recalls the velocity with which the industry transformed under these multi-lateral arrangements:

… literally overnight there was a major change. Two companies at different ends of the audience and business spectrum began a partnership and within the space of a few months, the entire landscape had changed. It wasn’t by stealth; it was by shock and awe… Bang! The moves were made and the deals were done. And it was very quick. There was no real warning. They brought into play a whole new acquisitions dynamic very quickly, which had some significant financial pressures attached. So that was the speed at which the industry changed. Bang. Gone. (Sowada, 2007: 1)

Village Roadshow’s capacity to profit from the vertical integration strategies of globalised media markets is blatant. Today, the company operates core businesses in film and distribution, theme-parks, cinema exhibition and radio. Its film production outlet has been behind a host of recent successes including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton, 2005), Happy Feet (George Miller, 2006), as well as The Matrix trilogy (Andy & Larry Wachowski 1999-2003); and it also maintains a majority holding in Austereo, Australia’s largest radio network. The company additionally dominates Australia’s theme-park industry through its operation of Warner Bros. Movie World, Wet’n’Wild Water World, as well as Sea World Resort and Warner Roadshow Studios. According to Village Roadshow’s company profile, these activities are not only complimentary, but also provide “significant cross-promotional opportunities” (Village, 2007).

Village Roadshow’s aptitude for conflating film production, exhibition, distribution, and theme parks is a defining feature of the Crown Entertainment Complex.  As part of Australia’s leading retail entertainment destination, Village Crown operates as a tightly regulated marketing machine for the perpetuation of the company’s cross-promotional activities. Within its hermetically sealed spaces, audiences are repeatedly exposed to a barrage of Village Roadshow products and services; including future films, DVD releases, holiday destinations, interactive game arcades, star gossip and Hollywood news. These products are subsequently reinforced through the systematic distribution of printed promotional martials, radio endorsements, movie trailers and video clips. Such multi-media conflations provide a stylised, corporate spin on Tom Gunning’s famous “cinema of attractions”; a pertinent idiom which reminds us that spectatorial distractions are important elements in the continued attraction of movie-going (Gunning,1990: 56).

Village Crown As Multi-Sensory Event Space

This fusing of diverse media modules is indicative of a wider trend within the global film exhibition industry which seeks to draw audiences out of their home environments and into the controlled spaces of retail entertainment destinations. With home-based technologies such as DVD, Pay TV, and the Internet continually threatening to detract from box office takings, exhibitors such as Village have a vested interest in promoting cinema-going as a multi-sensory event that can not be emulated in the domestic sphere. This deliberate creation of an interactive event space is indicative of Retail Entertainment Destinations across the globe, as Martin Pegler notes:

In order to lure people away from their home entertainment centres and into the world of fun/food/ and fashion, developers, realtors and retailers have had to make everything bigger, bolder, brighter and more filled with brio and bombast to bring the pleasure-seeker out. Of course you can watch a new movie on your home screen, courtesy of your local VCR rental store for a lot less … but going to the movies today is more like an adventure-filled with amusement, amazement glamour, and glitz. (Pegler, 2000: 1)

A walk around the Crown Entertainment Complex certainly confirms this agenda. Part casino, part theme park, part cinema megaplex, Crown is a hybrid leisure space that seeks to transform the act of movie-going into a multi-sensory entertainment event. With expanded auditoriums, increased screen size, clearer and louder sound systems, and a comprehensive array of food ,beverage and entertainment options, Village Crown provides an entertainment experience that is closer to what Acland has described as “a shrunken theme park” than a traditional cinema venue (Acland, 2003:197). Village Roadshow’s website is explicit in this regard:

The creation of ‘entertainment destinations’ and not just cinemas is central to the division’s strategy, aiming to increase attendances by enhancing the movie going culture in its chosen markets. The division has also sought to widen the appeal of going to the movies by creating new concept cinemas attractive to a broader demographic. As part of this approach the division has developed concepts such as Gold Class, Cinema Europa and now the new larger Vmax screens. (Village Roadshow, 2007)

In tandem with this agenda to transform cinemas into event spaces is a calculated use of postmodern architecture and interior design in which signifiers of disparate eras, locations, and mixed media texts are fused into a heterogeneous jumble of signs and meanings. Within Crown, reproduction nineteenth century street-lamps, artificial bird calls, and computer generated fire and water displays, combine with gigantic statues, multi-story atriums and movie-themed eateries to produce a muddle of  incommensurate referents, geographic locales and diverse temporalities. In ‘The Architecture of Entertainment: Learning from Melbourne’s Crown Casino’, Brian Morris articulates his experience of Crown’s schizophrenic aesthetic in this way: “Walking inside and around Crown we find a curious mixture of the familiar and the strange, of the industrial and the post industrial, past and future, the utopic and dystopic, pleasures and anxieties, co-existent spaces and times, and the problems that beset negotiating and living across these different moments and affects.” (Morris, 1997:1)

Thus fuelled by postmodern schemas of appropriation and similitude, Crown exists as a perfect example Umberto Eco’s primary contention that the contemporary era is defined by its insistence on experiencing the ‘real thing’, and in its frenzied quest to obtain it, is forced to fabricate the absolute fake (Eco: 1986). It is also an ideal prototype of the Australian cinema industry’s attempt to industrialise pleasure by tapping into what John Hannigan has described as a “growing market for ‘experiences’ that are otherwise unattainable” (Hannigan, 1998: 72). For Melbourne audiences, what is at stake within Crown is not only the loss of cinema diversity associated with the closing of independent cinema circuits, but also a loss of sensory freedom. As Hannigan has argued, such spaces require consumers to surrender an astonishing amount of control over their “freedom of movement and freedom of imagination” in return for a series of predictable and purchasable sensory stimulations (Hannigan: 1998: 81).

Crown’s attempt to provide audiences with a mixed-media entertainment event is a further evidenced in its deliberate blurring of boundaries between film narratives and entertainment spaces. In his discussion on contemporary theme parks, Paul Rodaway argues that the inclusion of filmic imagery in contemporary media venues exemplifies two important characteristics of postmodern culture. Firstly, it involves a “reconstruction of the visual”, whereby film and media spectacles become spatially enacted within the lived environment, and secondly, it represents a “wider Western experience of aesthetic abstraction” in which filmic images are removed from their original contexts, and reproduced at the level of consumerist commodity. (Rodaway, 2003: 167)

In keeping with this notion of narrative/reality boundary-blurring, Morris identifies the river-side boardwalk at Crown as reminiscent of the opening scene from the film Bladerunner (Ridley Scott, 1982):

Walking or driving towards the Crown Complex, the spectator’s mobile body functions as a slowly tracking camera zooming in on its object. Like the now conventional establishing shot of many Hollywood films, the object of the camera’s initial gaze in this opening scene is the city from afar. More specifically, the flames that erupt at Crown eerily evoke the first few minutes of Bladerunner  (1982) where the imagined future cityscape of Los Angeles in the year 2019 is similarly punctuated with gas fireballs. (Morris, 1999: 71)

Clearly, these similarities have not escaped the attention of Crown’s in-house marketing team, who promote a walk along Crown’s boulevard as an interactive Bladerunner-esque event: “Outside, on special occasions, chimney stacks lined along the boardwalk shoot bursts of flames into the air, giving the casino an awesome appearance somewhat like the cityscape featured in the film Bladerunner”. (Melbourne Tourism Guide, 2007)

Melbourne’s Morphing Screen Environment

The combined event-marketing practices and aggressive screen acquisition policies of the Village Roadshow consortium have dramatically altered the industrial geography of Melbourne’s cinema landscape. This is clearly evident within inner suburban areas such as South Yarra, Toorak and St. Kilda, where independent exhibitors have been forced into direct competition with the company’s leading venues. The strategic placement of these cinemas appears to be based largely around Village’s deliberate intention to ‘ring-bark’ local exhibitors. Sowada’s observations are useful here:

In an area where there were a number of independent screens, you’d find a high level of very direct, rapid and competitive development activity. Some serious strategies were played out in these environments. So in a sense, [it wasn’t] about the location of the audience, [but] the strategic location of competition… Say with like the Jam Factory [Village] or the Como [Palace] or The George [Palace], that’s a lot of screens in a very small catchment area. And when we look at those days when they were built, there was the Longford, the Track, the Astor, the Elsternwick Classic, and the Brighton Bay, which was fairly close by. So there was already a strong concentration of cinemas there before those ones were built (Sowada 2007).

As with most forms of multi-lateral trade initiatives, these strategies pose a significant and continued threat to the viability of Australian screen culture. As Sowada has argued, one of the perils of vertical integration on this scale is that instability in one component of the network can have a catastrophic impact on the rest of the industry; “One of the dangers … that we should be aware of… is that a weak link could affect all the others. Large organisations are not immune from a variety of market forces, and so given current structures it’s not too much of a long bow to draw to say that instability in one component can have serious if not disastrous ramifications throughout the entire chain and thus the industry” (Sowada 2007).

More than any other cinema outlet in the southern hemisphere, Village Crown represents the pivotal role that the global media industry now plays in reshaping urban landscapes. As Australia’s leading retail entertainment destination, the Village Crown megaplex operates as an expedient front for the oligopolistic controls behind Melbourne’s changing screen landscape. On the back of its continued success, Village has (re)developed six additional super-sized cinema megaplexes, all of which contain in excess of fourteen screens and are attached to retail entertainment destinations in and around Melbourne. These are: The Jam Factory in South Yarra; Village Star Zone in Karingal; Village Southland in Cheltenham; Village Sunshine in Sunshine; Knox Village O-Zone in Wantirna; and Century City Walk in Glen Waverly. Collectively, these venues encircle Melbourne’s CBD and greater metro area and have effectively wiped out the majority of near-by independents. 

Conclusion

During the past two decades, much has been said about the global entertainment industry’s escalating influence over the urban geography of downtown areas. Central to this has been an emergent body of literature that identifies the economic, cultural and social processes involved in the transformation of these spaces as variations on theme park designs. Yet, to date, little sustained attention has been directed towards the changing industrial geography of cinema landscapes, and their intrinsic connection to the global media industry. As a paragon of Melbourne’s changing screen culture, the Crown Entertainment Complex provides Australian screen studies with a unique opportunity to rethink the relationship between screen distribution, sensory manipulation and global media conglomerates. Specifically, it allows us to indentify Australia’s cinema-based retail entertainment destinations within a broader political, economic and geographic context.

References

Acland, Charles, (2003) Screen Traffic, Movies, Multiplexes and Global Culture. London: Duke University Press.

Crown Casino web site www.crowncasino.com.au [accessed October 12 2007]

Eco, Umberto (1986) Travels in Hyper Reality, Orlando Florida: Harcourt Brace Janovich Publishers.

Jones, Ross, (1998) ‘Developments in the Cinema Distribution and Exhibition Industry: A Report to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’ http://www.accc.gov.au> accessed February 2001

Gunning, Tom (1990) ‘The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, its Spectators and the Avant-Garde’, Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, London, British Film Institute, pp: 56-62.

Hannigan, John (1998) Fantasy City: Pleasure, and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis, London: Routledge.

Hawkins, Michael, ‘The Moving Numbers Business’ 4 Corners Special Report, June 1996

Hinds, Andrew, (1999) ‘The New Plex Busters? Location-Based Diversions Vie for Moviegoers’ Dollars’, Variety, May 10-16.

Melbourne Tourism Guide website  http://www.melbourne.com.au/crown.htm  [accessed October 12 2007]

Morris, Brian, (1999)‘The Architecture of Entertainment: Learning From Melbourne’s Crown Casino’ The UTS Review 5(1), pp. 70-93

Rodaway, Paul (2003) Sensuous Geographies: Body, Sense and Place, London: Routledge.

Sorkin, Michael, (1992) Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space, New York, Hill and Wang.

Sowada, Richard (2007) Interview with Leanne Downing in ‘Cinema Scapes: Mapping the Affects of Vertical Integration on Melbourne’s Screen CultureState of Play.

Village Roadshow ltd., website http://www.villageroadshow.com.au  [accessed October 15th 2007] 

Filmography

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton, 2005

Happy Feet,  George Miller, 2006

The Matrix Trilogy, Andy & Larry Wachowski 1999-2003

1. Hinds, Andrew, (1999) ‘The New Plex Busters? Location-Based Diversions Vie for Moviegoers’ Dollars’, Variety, May 10-16, p.16.

Author Bio:

Leanne Downing is a Research Fellow in the School of Culture & Communication, University of Melbourne. Email:downingl@unimelb.edu.au