The big-screen worthy life behind Kino Cinemas

The big-screen worthy life behind Kino Cinemas
Jack Hayes

Owning and operating Melbourne’s much-loved Kino Cinemas was never a part of the initial plan for the cinema’s founder, Frank Cox.

Co-owner since its opening in June 1987, Mr Cox had dreams of a life in rock ‘n’ roll promotion, with the hope of mixing it with royalty like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

Working as a rock ‘n’ roll film distributor in the 1970s, his dreams were not too distant from reality, exhibiting major rock concerts like Woodstock in cinemas across the nation to huge success.

That was, until bad fortune in the shape of Beatles legend John Lennon’s murder got in the way.

“Paul McCartney had a film called Rockshow which followed the Wings Over America tour. So, I stopped into his offices in London and bought the rights for Australia,” Mr Cox said.

“Six days before we opened the film, which takes many months to organise and set up, John Lennon dies. People said to me, ‘Frank, this is great publicity’, but I didn’t like the idea of reaping the rewards from something like that.”

“It went bad, I lost a lot of money, and it wasn’t successful. I had hit a crossroads and didn’t know what to do. I still wanted to be a rock promoter but had no idea how I could do it.”

Born in Istanbul’s Byzantine Greek community, Mr Cox first found a love of film in the 1950s where he would see a Hollywood movie every Sunday.

Years on, and still with his life firmly embedded in film, Mr Cox turned to the unknown world of art house cinema.

In what he describes as a complete fluke, Mr Cox stumbled across Mephisto, a German language film produced and directed by a Hungarian Austrian film production team, at the Cannes Film Festival.

He was infatuated. With some careful manoeuvring at the negotiation table, the rights to the Australian screening of film and with it began a life in foreign and independent film.

Mephisto was a hit, running in Australian cinemas for five months and it went on to win the 1982 Academy Award for best foreign film.

From that success, New Vision films was born, dedicated to the careful selection and distribution of art house films in Australia.

“Choosing new films was complicated, but slowly, slowly, I continued to go to these film festivals and markets,” Mr Cox said.

“February was Berlin, May was Cannes, August was Venice, September was Toronto and November was the American film market in Los Angeles.”

“It didn’t matter what you were doing at the time, you had to uproot your life, get on a plane. That helped us become one the leading art house film distributors in the country.”

A life on the run was great, but Mr Cox wanted a foothold in Melbourne, where his home and life was then, and has remained ever since.

With New Vision a tour de force throughout the country, Mr Cox had his eyes on two vacant cinema screens located in the city’s iconic Collins Place.

The screens were examined then readied for use under the expertise of Collins Place architect, Peter Mills, and in 1987 Kino Cinemas was born.

“The cinemas opened with a bang. From the first week we had amazing crowds and great write-ups,” Mr Cox said.

“People in the inner city were yearning for a cinema catering for refined audiences. We had an amazing year.”

“Back then Kino Cinemas was made up of twin screens with 280 seats each. That was perfect for us, because we were after a discerning audience to show arthouse titles and we’re not likely to fill the 600 to 700 cinemas of the day.”

The two titles to first grace the Kino Cinema screens were Stephen Frear’s My Beautiful Laundrette and Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire.

Kino Cinemas quickly became the destination for arthouse cinema in Melbourne and expanded to three screens in 1994 and a fourth shortly thereafter.

Mr Cox continued to travel the world, cherry picking the finest in international and independently made films throughout the world.

Admittedly, it was a great life. But it came the stage for Mr Cox to take a back seat as he retired from film distribution.

“In 2008, my shareholder partners said they wanted to buy me out. I felt that the Kino was going through a lull and doing a third of what we were the previous decade,” Mr Cox said.

“As a businessman, I thought about it a lot. But Kino was my baby, I couldn’t let it go.”

“I sat on the offer and thought about it for a bit. They forgot in the shareholders agreement that clause, which gave me the ability to turn their offer around and buy them out as a counteroffer.”

Mr Cox’s use of a shotgun clause caused what he sheepishly describes as a bit of “screaming and yelling” but was well worth it to keep his beloved Kino Cinemas in his safe hands.

In the meantime, Mr Cox reached out to an old friend and competitor, and from that a merger with Antonio Zeccola’s Palace Cinemas took place.

That saw an increase of cinema screens to seven and a gradual increase of business, with Kino Cinemas posting record ticket sales each year.

“2019 was out best year ever. Since then, of course, the proverbial hit the fan. We have been thinking, what is going on and what can we do,” he said.

“Our landlords since 1987, AMP have come through with flying colours. They have been looking after us and I would have to say if it weren’t for the quality of relationship we have with them over the years, we might not be existing right now.”

Still with arthouse film as the very fabric of Kino Cinemas, Mr Cox has expanded his remit to include major box office hits like the James Bond franchise and James Cameron’s Avatar.

With the major film producers holding on to their “product” until global cinema is comprehensively open again, Mr Cox is counting down the days until he can reopen the doors to Kino Cinemas •

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