Sunday 23 July 2017

Vale Robert Ward - David Kilderry writes on the life of an adventurous showman in the Australian movie business,

David Kilderry is a member of the Cinema Pioneers. This is a note he sent out to his fellow members. I thank him for permission to reprint it here.

Sadly, industry doyen, and former Victorian branch president of the Cinema Pioneers, Robert Ward OAM passed away this morning after bravely battling illness for some time. Robert was a giant in both the cinema exhibition and cinema distribution industries.

Robert’s contribution to the cinema industry in Australia cannot be overstated.

Robert commenced working with his father Bert at a young age in their family’s cinemas in Brighton; the Prince George and beautiful Dendy. Over the years Robert learnt all aspects of the cinema business, from front-of-house to projection and, in time, programming innovative films and even live performances.

The Dendy Brighton became a showplace for international film and cult Hollywood product. Robert’s success in screening adventurous and trailblazing product later led to the foundation of Filmways Distributors with partner Mark Josem. Before long the Dendy cinema brand spread into the city, across the suburbs and interstate.

His interest in cinema technology led to the Dendy Collins St cinema operating the first non-rewind platter film system paired with xenon lamp and automation. This led to a local distributorship of Christie cinema equipment. Robert later partnered with Village in modern suburban twin cinemas and even more recently involvement with Reading Country Cinemas. He also operated the CMAX Devonport Cinemas, Filmways Digital and Filmways multmedia.

Robert served two terms as the Cinema Pioneers Victorian branch president, was a former National Pioneer of the year and was a long time board member of ICA (Independent Cinemas Australia).

We send our deepest condolences to his wife, Helen, and family.

Funeral details are not available at this time, but details will be sent out when they are at hand.

David Kilderry has also sent me some further information about Robert's life and I am delighted to publish it here: His career encompassed everything cinema. From his childhood working under father Bert at the old Brighton Prince George and Dendy theatres he learnt showmanship. His later programming of the Dendy made it a landmark for independent and foreign films and also forgotten or passed over films like Zorba The Greek. He ran a lot of 70mm films and had a giant 70mm neon sign atop the Dendy. Many live shows ran at the Dendy in the 60s too including Tony Hancock. 
He moved into distribution with partner Mark Josem (Sandringham Drive-in) and forged the largest independent film distributor in the country. Filmways (later Filmpac Holdings) supplied product for Hoyts hardtops and drive-ins in the 70s on almost a weekly basis. For every True Story Of Eskimo Nell or Roar, there were blinding successes like The Language Of Love (ran over a year in Melbourne city) and of course Dirty Dancing.

Robert was executive producer on many Australian films, often on good friend Antony I Ginnane productions. Outside of the three majors, Robert was perhaps the only person to produce films, distribute them and run them in his own theatres. 

He expanded the Dendy  cinemas chain to Collins St and Lonsdale St Melbourne city, to Crows Nest in Sydney and Malvern and Forest Hill in Melbourne. Filmways HQ was at the rear of the old Dendy Malvern. HQ later moved to City Rd Sth Melbourne. Robert was a great futurist always looking for innovation. The Dendy Collins St was the first cinema to run on a platter system with xenon lamp and automation. From this pursuit of technology he became the Australian agent for Christie Projection equipment.

Robert then partnered Village in modern suburban twin cinemas. These Vill-Den theatres lifted the standard of suburban venue in the late 70s and included Village Doncaster, Village Boronia etc

He later ran the Trak cinema Toorak and was instrumental in bringing Reading Cinemas to Australia. His relationship with Jim Cotter developed as a partnership in Reading Country Cinemas the first being Townsville and later Dubbo etc.
Robert also operated the CMax Cinemas in Devonport and formerly Darwin.  

Editor’s Note: Robert Ward belonged to a family of adventurous showmen. They put up their own money and got involved in lots of bits of business relating to film production, distribution and exhibition. Their powerhouse Dendy Brighton was a notable fixture on Melbourne's art house scene for many years and I recall early youthful adventures going all the way across town to see among others Orson Welles The Trial. For that film, on a Saturday night. The place was packed and only the front row was left by the time I got there. The Ward family took more than a few independent paths. Their Filmways distribution and production company was very quixotic indeed. Someone else will have the details of just what they acquired and tried to foist on the public with mixed success.

Their independent thinking was manifest in a lot of ways. My favourite story, received second hand I must add, was of the Dendy retrieving Otto Preminger's In Harm's Way back in 1965. They rejigged the ads that Paramount supplied, maybe removing the emphasis on John Wayne. When the figures got back to Otto, a shining light in a world-wide sea of red ink, he rang the Dendy, "Preminger here. Just what have you done to make my film a success in your cinema when it's a failure everywhere else?"

The Dendy experimented with lots of program ideas. One of them was to go back to the days of mixing live acts and movies. Among the small number of artists they presented before abandoning the idea was the late Tony Hancock doing a standup routine. Hancock died while on that visit to Australia leaving behind a three ep (of a projected 13) TV series of his East Cheam character down under. Regrettably the series seem to be lost.

There are few adventurous spirits left in the business. The Dendy brand lives on as a quality exhibition chain. Robert Ward would surely have liked that.

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