Keep Tors Drive In Cinema Open in Charters Towers!

Keep Tors Drive In Cinema Open in Charters Towers!

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Good afternoon,

Unfortunately, we have sad news. We were hoping to re-open very soon as new movies are slowly released, but after being knocked by the Covid-19 shut down, and knowing that we’d still be competing against the rate-payer funded World Theatre Cinemas, we regret to advise that we have no choice but to remain closed. We are heartbroken for our family of staff, fellow businesses and wonderful patrons, and know that the loss will be felt deeply by many of you. However, should we have a council in the future that reverses the decision to compete unfairly against us while billing the huge losses to the ratepayers, we would be very keen to re-open our drive-in cinemas for the region. If we remain closed, the region will feel the loss of yet another small business. Furthermore our community will be deprived of a major tourist destination and irreplaceable icon which provides a magical, atmospheric moviegoing experience that you can’t replicate at home, and one that has brought joy to so many from near and far in the past 54 years.

Before arriving at this decision and going public, we attempted to negotiate this matter with council, yet again. Unfortunately, council has resolved to continue using the public purse to fund cinema screens against us. We believe that a minority of councillors fought hard against this decision in a recent meeting, and hopefully the minutes of this meeting will be made public in the spirit of “openness and transparency” that we keep hearing from council.

It is hard enough for a cinema venue to survive without any competition in a small town, so you can only imagine how difficult it's been to compete with council for nearly 24 years. We haven’t had the opportunity to operate in a fair market, and therefore could only dream of expanding our own business to offer the choices that the council cinemas do, thanks to the ratepayers funding them. To re-open our own cinemas will require a substantial investment after suffering further losses from the decimating impact of the pandemic shut down. We simply aren’t in a position to keep subsiding our own venue through our other interests, as we have done in the past, while council competes with us. We’ve fought long and hard to keep the drive-in here for future generations, but we can’t keep working around the clock only to suffer further losses while our local council continues using rates money to further damage our business, irrespective of their intentions.

Even though spacious outdoor drive-ins are now seen as a much safer cinema alternative than small indoor cinema venues during this pandemic, we operate in a tiny, fragile market, and can’t keep competing with council. We have repeatedly tried to resolve this issue with them, including offering to pay council and lease the cinemas ourselves a few years ago, but have gotten nowhere. Instead of enabling a local icon and tourist attraction to operate without market interference by local government - especially as arts in the outdoors has increasing legitimacy and appeal - our council has chosen to continue funding cinemas against us, so we simply aren't in a position to risk re-opening.

There was a time when our council concentrated on basic infrastructure, such as roads, rubbish, parks, pools etc., and stayed out of business. After the World Cinemas opened in 1996, our business was destroyed, and we had to close our own indoor cinema and work other jobs around the clock, and make real sacrifices to keep the drive-in open for the region. If the World Cinemas are a “community service”, then what does that make us, and why does council operate those cinemas as a commercial facility to dominate the local market? Smart people know that cinemas can’t reasonably be compared to the likes of pools and libraries as public amenities that the private sector doesn’t provide, and it’s an indisputable fact that they’ve competed against our business since opening, using public money to do so.

To justify operating cinemas against us because there is a minority who will only go there instead of supporting us is problematic. Does council then build and fund other businesses in the service industry against other private operators for the same reason, thereby disrupting the market and wiping out any incentive to invest and have a go? Does council use rate-payers money to prop up our drive-in for those that don’t, and won’t go to the World Cinemas? Of course, they don’t and nor should they because we’re supposed to be operating in a democratic, market economy. We’ve never asked for anything but the right to try that any other business should have, without market interference by its’ council.

Thanks to the ratepayers, the World Cinemas have the advantage over us and have dominated the local cinema market since they opened because they have more screens, and can therefore show more movies than we can, and weeks before we can. When the expensive conversion from film to digital arrived several years ago, once again the ratepayers and taxpayers via funding, picked up the tab (over $200,000), so that the World Theatre Cinemas could screen the latest movies in 2D and 3D on two screens. This set us back significantly while we waited, and then struggled to pay off one digital projector using our own money, so we could at least screen some of the latest movies. Since then another digital projector has been purchased by council and they now have 3 the potential to use 3 screens against our one. No other local business is in our position.

Despite these real challenges, we’re driven and passionate about this industry, so we've soldiered on, hoping that one day we’d have a council who’d see this issue from a rational perspective. Unfortunately, we’ve had to dig into our savings to keep the drive-in open, and have been unable to expand and run properly because we haven't had the opportunity to operate without council funded interference in a tiny local cinema market. If we didn’t have council opposition our indoor cinema would still be open, and probably twinned to incorporate a museum, as we had planned and dreamed of providing. We have so many ideas to also develop the drive-in cinemas further, with the flow on effects that would bring, but have been restricted by council operating cinemas against us in a town that's simply too small for us all to be viable. If our council is sincere about operating the World Cinemas as a community service, then they could co-operate with us, and wouldn’t screen new movies until we’d had the opportunity to screen them all first. Dominant, and therefore unfair competition from council has made it difficult to programme, compete, and remain open let alone expand, and the Covid-19 shutdown has brought this issue to a head for us. This isn’t a game for us because we use our own money. We now have no choice but to remain closed while council continues fully funding commercial cinemas against us.

There are those who dismiss us as "whingers", because the World Cinemas vs the Tors Drive-In Cinemas has been an ongoing issue for decades. We certainly didn’t ask to be in this position. We get no joy from airing our grievances, and would love nothing more than to move on from all of this, but we’re out of options. When we bought the drive-in in 1990, we could never have anticipated a council would build a multi-million dollar cinema venue to compete against us, and that it would continue spending millions more propping it up because the market simply hasn’t been there for decades. No other small business in this town has had to pay for it’s own opposition through rates as we have had to, and no other drive-in cinema in the country has had to contend with council funded domination of the local cinema market as we have. What frustrates us most is that, instead of closing, we could have provided so much more for the region, and still could, given the opportunity to operate without council competition.

There are those who suggest that the World Theatre Cinemas don’t affect our financial viability as if we are “different”, and aren’t a cinema selling movie tickets, and that there is room for both in such a small town. The issue is obfuscated when the gallery and live theatre are discussed in conjunction with the cinemas, as if their existence changes the fact that there are commercial cinemas competing against us within the facility. We’ve never had a problem with the World Theatre gallery or the live theatre aspect of its’ operations as, of course, they really are different to commercial cinemas. As anyone with common sense could anticipate, the Queensland Competition Authority investigation irrefutably proved that the World Cinemas are our competition, and have therefore harmed our business. This is the truth that those who nothing about our business or this industry, continue to ignore.

If there was an overwhelming demand for both surely the World Cinemas could be privately funded and stand on their own feet, but instead our rates keep rising, while many complain that our local roads and other infrastructure have been neglected. In a regressive race to the bottom, the fact is that both cinema venues have been losing money while the rates keep increasing. We suspect that the majority of ratepayers aren’t happy that one reason their rates keep rising is to keep those cinemas open for the minority, while a privately owned and operated cinema and major tourist attraction that actually contributes to the local economy, has been destroyed in the process.

According to the local government act, councils are to be accountable and use rates money democratically for the benefit of the majority, and not the minority. As experienced exhibitors and distributors, we know how high cinema overheads are, and therefore expect that our council, who aren’t experienced cinema operators, loses hundreds of thousands of dollars per annum to keep the World Cinemas competing against us, even after ticket sales. You need a consistently high volume of foot traffic to keep a large venue like the World Theatre and its’ cinemas afloat, and our population is simply far too small to sustain it. If our council is open and transparent, then surely it’s time they disclosed just how much the World Theatre Cinemas are costing us ratepayers, and let us all decide whether or not the expense is justified.

We sincerely thank those who have genuinely supported us, and/or have helped us along the way, and we are proud to have kept this wonderful icon for the town for 30 years, without sponging off the ratepayers. This past week has been yet another kick in the guts, and we are shattered after putting so much blood, sweat and tears into our cinemas over the decades. At this crucial time when small towns are trying to recover by supporting their local businesses and attract tourists, we are faced with a council that continues to make it impossible for us to move forward because it won’t stop propping up the World Cinemas against the Tors, which is so beloved by our community and beyond. We’ve always had the potential to provide so much more for the region, but our council continues to make it impossible to survive, let alone thrive. We are deeply saddened, and feel the burden of responsibility to you all, but we simply can’t keep struggling against the mighty public purse.

If you share our disappointment, we strongly urge you to exercise your democratic rights and get in touch with our council and/or elected representatives. Our council may mistake your silence for approval, so please, if you don’t want to lose your drive-in forever, now’s the time to make yourselves heard.

Pease contact:

Charters Towers Regional Council

PO Box 189

Charters Towers QLD 4820

Phone: 07 4761 5300

As we explained earlier, should we have a council in the future that decides to stop competing against us using ratepayer funds, then we’d be very keen to re-open the Tors as it’s been an honour, and our absolute pleasure to entertain you all for so long. We know that we’re not the only ones who would love to see our big screens light up again, but we just can’t see a way forward in our current situation.

Thank you for your understanding, and support in anticipation.

Kind regards,
Steve & Deb Snell