Borrowing an analogy from Alfred Hitchcock, who professed, “For me, the cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake,” you could say certain theatres are the supermarket-bought, mass-produced variety – but a session at Palace Cinemas is a decadent treat indeed. The independent theatre’s international offering of films, plush décor and movie-length wine pours make for an experience that Palace Cinemas CEO Benjamin Zeccola deems without comparison.
“Humans are social animals and crave meaningful social experiences,” says Benjamin, who is the son of founder and owner, Antonio Zeccola. “Film theatres, especially respectful premium cinemas, provide an escape that no domestic screen or tablet can compete with.” With Benjamin’s three siblings also in executive roles, the family-run business employs more than 400 staff across 21 locations nationally and, despite the rising tide of piracy, continues to flourish and fight the good fight for film. Here’s how he’s managed it.
Since stepping up to CEO in 2013, what’s been the best business decision you’ve made?
Most are behind-the-scenes strategic decisions. However, I’m proud of what I achieved for this business in fighting against the government for the right to license our cinemas, offering quality wine, healthy olive oil popcorn and by driving our business upmarket to define ourselves as a distinctly different offering to the mainstream – all elements that were novel at the time and are now widely emulated by our competitors.
Your family’s involvement with film goes way back. What’s your earliest memory of the cinema experience?
My earliest memories are of the grand marble staircase of the Palace Cinema on Bourke St [in Melbourne, Victoria] – now sadly lost to developers – winding upward toward two more foyer bars and three levels of stadium seating; all surrounded by magnificent art nouveau style, it was spectacular. And terrifying to myself as a four-year-old.
Was there ever any question of you going in this direction, career-wise?
From five years old, I was determined to help my father run the business. It’s immediately evident to anyone involved in starting a business that it’s an immense lifelong struggle, and I knew from an early age that I could help my father carry that weight. I then dedicated all my spare time to that endeavour as a child, then teenager, then immediately upon completing Year 12 exams and entering the mailroom to pack VHS cassettes and send them to video stores, all the way through until now as chief executive.
How is Palace able to undergo multi-million dollar expansions, despite nearly half of Australian consumers illegally downloading?
The renovations and renewals are essential to combat illegal downloads, and The George Revival Cinema [in St. Kilda, Melbourne] and The Academy Twin [one of Palace’s own in Paddington, Sydney] would still be open if so much content wasn’t downloaded. Thousands of jobs are lost to piracy, in all areas of the creative process. However, we create environments that are so unique, comfortable and enjoyable that our cinemas win even when competing with ‘free’ (stolen) content.
When it comes to what you put on screens, do you choose with your heart or your head?
We start with our heart then reality-check with our heads! Movies are emotional, however we can’t play our favourite film in a 200-seater knowing only three people will attend. For obvious reasons, we moderate our personal tastes with our experience of and expectation for predicted audience numbers. In this business, however, the heart and gut play an enormous role.
Jodie Foster recently said major American studios are making fewer movies, and those that are being made are likely to be franchise films…
While sad for the industry overall, that plays to our strengths at Palace Cinemas and increases our point of difference with our film festivals from Europe, Scandinavia, and Latin America. Palace sources its films from such broad range of suppliers that the ‘franchise effect’ will have less impact on us than the wider industry. Although studio production trends wax and wane in response to attendance, therefore, I expect a new trend has already started as this one declines.
Palace is going solar. Why is sustainability a focus for you?
Perhaps this is where the heart rules the head also. It’s just on our minds all the time. We want to be more sustainable and tread more lightly on the earth. Change starts with oneself and as a business we decided just to get up and do something about our footprint; despite the obstacles and empty incentives offered and retracted by governments of various colour. We just act on what we can when and where we can. I’m frustrated we can’t do more sooner, due to factors beyond our field of influence.
We’ve got to ask – what’s your favourite film?
That is a tough call, but when pressed I’d go with: Casablanca, The Great Beauty, The Conformist, Jean De Florette, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Solaris (Tarkovsky), Bicycle Thief, Fellini’s 8½, Apocalypto… I can’t stop, should I stop?