Big Screen Family Values

Wallis Cinemas

There’s a unique perspective that often takes root in a family owned business, a special quality that sets it apart. The opportunity to grow within a family business builds strong connections, and enables a true affinity for the business’ product or service. This fosters a collective connectedness and a drive to secure a shared vision for the future.

Family run businesses account for seven out of ten businesses in Australia, with 17 years as the average tenure of the chief executive. A family owned business can and most often does maintain a sustainable competitive advantage in the marketplace through its shared goals and organizational culture.

Wallis Cinemas, established in 1954, is one such independently owned family business in South Australia. This third generation cinema chain has been operating for 60 years and employs a staff of almost 300. It owns close to 30 per cent of screen share in Southern Australia, which translates to $20 million annually. Its unique niche market and diversification of product are among the predominant factors accounting for its impressive success and longevity.

“Predominantly, we target a slightly older demographic,” says Paul Besanko, Wallis Cinemas’ Marketing Manager, who has been with the chain for 37 years. “Our locations are at destination points… They’re not necessarily in shopping centres but they’re adjacent to shopping precincts. We do tend to target a 30 plus demographic… the majors [cinemas] tend to play in the 16-30 age area.”

While a community’s demographic can determine a screening selection, Mr Besanko indicates that selections are largely dependent on which films are available at the time. “We tend to do very well with the slightly older films,” he adds.

Wallis Cinemas currently owns and operates four multi screen complexes located in Mitcham, Mt Barker, Piccadilly, and Noarlunga, with its fifth screen at Mainline drive-in at Gepps Cross.

An iconic history
It was Hughie Wallis and his passion for cinema that initiated the opening of his suburban theatres in community halls in South Australia in 1950. His first drive-in opened in 1954 in West Beach, and the number of theatres soon grew to a total of 12 in both urban and rural areas of the state.

With Hughie’s passing in 1994, management of Wallis Cinemas became the rite of passage for his son Bob Wallis, who was the General Manager at the time. It was Bob who made improvements in the cinemas’ standards and who salvaged the last remaining drive-in at Gepps Cross by opening a Sunday Market.

With Bob’s passing in 2007, his wife Lorna took the helm, and now their daughter is actively involved in Wallis Cinemas’ management. “We’re still family owned,” says Mr Besanko. “Most of our senior people are 30 plus years employees. Even for the permanent staff in our locations, 20 years is not unusual, if not longer.”

Entering the digitized age
With digital technology entering the scene in the past decade, Australian cinema has been transformed by digital projection. It appears to be the end of an era for film prints, and mainstream independents – such as Wallis Cinemas – embrace the new technology as a means to share a story.

Digital projection has changed the movie-going experience by providing exceptional sound quality and images while sharing a medium for screening content other than movies. Digital is a more affordable form of distribution; according to 2012 statistics, 72 per cent of all Australian screens are now digital, and close to 60 per cent are 3D capable.

“As with the rest of the industry, [digital] has given us a lot more flexibility,” explains Mr Besanko. “You can run films in multiple screens at different times, which was not easily achievable years ago, when we were 35mm. That gives us the flexibility to be more responsive to what the public wants.”

The emergence of 3D technology aligned with digital projection has changed the infrastructure of the cinema industry – and the cinema experience as a whole. Wallis Cinemas acknowledges the need to keep up with today’s progressive technological advances. Its theatres offer 3D showings, which attract audiences because of the novelty factor and technical quality.

“3D is a premium product, and we do charge more for the 3D presentation. Generally, we do very well.” However, Mr Besanko goes on to caution that it ultimately comes back to the product. “If the film is not right, it doesn’t matter whether it’s 3D or not. People won’t respond. If the film is a good film, 3D or 2D doesn’t matter. You will do well.”

A vibrant community asset
For the past 26 years, Wallis Cinemas’ Gepps Cross drive-in has offered a Sunday morning market. The market attracts at least 10,000 people per week with its extensive offering of fresh fruit and vegetables and wide selection of bric-a-brac and collectables. “It did originally start off as trash and treasure,” Mr Besanko shares. “Now it’s more the fresh produce. It would have to be the largest market in South Australia.”

Australia’s long 100-year affection for cinema is reflected in today’s cinema attendance, which continues to be strong. In 2012, the Australian cinema industry’s revenue was over $1 billion, and independents such as Wallis Cinemas remain a vibrant asset to both the industry and the community. At least 30 per cent of Australia’s box office revenue comes from independents, and their success can only be as good as their brand.

“We have a really strong brand,” says Mr Besanko. “I’d almost say it’s an iconic brand. We’ve always been a big player within our market, and we work very hard to maintain it.”

He relates that the biggest challenge for Wallis Cinemas while operating in a small market is the challenge of keeping up with technology. “Generally, larger public companies have the resources to invest in technology more quickly than small businesses. This is particularly challenging when the public demands the technological advances. The investment in technology, when spread across five locations, is far greater than when you spread this cost over 200 locations.”

A sneak preview
When asked about Wallis Cinemas’ plans for expansion and its vision for the future, Mr Besanko asserts that the cinema chain is content to continue with its presence in the South Australia state. The company is not especially interested in expanding to become an enormous national company.

Wallis Cinemas aims to maintain its market share and presence while continuing to offer satisfying cinema experiences to its patrons. “Ultimately, the culture of the family business reflects on the way we operate and on the service that we provide to the public. We would like to think that we offer a higher level of service than the national companies,” says Mr Besanko. “We’re very strong on family values.”

For more information about Wallis Cinemas, please visit

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December 16, 2018, 6:41 AM AEDT