It’s no surprise that brothers Stephen and Peter James Sourris run some of the most unique movie theatres in Brisbane – the cinema business is in their genes. For three generations, the Sourris family has owned and operated cinemas across the city.
“My grandfather owned the drive-in cinema in Aspley. From the age of seven, I began working there, taking tickets. Then I worked my way up as I got older, learning how to run the projector and working with distributors,” says Stephen.
In 1998, Stephen and Peter decided to strike out on their own by buying the Yatala Drive-In Cinema and launching Five Star Cinemas. They followed it up with the opening of the Elizabeth Picture Theatre in the CBD and New Farm Cinemas.
In November 2019, they opened Red Hill Cinemas at the site of the old Red Hill Skate Rink Arena, after spending more than two years restoring the site. Rather than completely renovating the building, they retained much of the building’s features and charm, including street art graffiti on the outside of the building.
How did the family business start?
My grandfather, also named Peter James Sourris, immigrated from a small island in Greece called Kythira in the 1920s. He started his first business by travelling around rural Queensland towns like Gayndah and Mundubbera with a hand-turned projector mounted on the back of a truck which projected movies onto the sides of building. Then the family business moved into cinemas and drive-ins. As time passed, the extended family moved on to other businesses, while my father, James Peter Sourris, continued with cinemas and drive-ins.
How did you learn how to run a business?
I completed a double degree in marketing and management from QUT, but predominately I learned about the business growing up around cinemas.
Had you run your own business before starting Five Star Cinemas?
We ran a lot of the drive-ins for the extended family, so we had a fair idea of how cinemas work before setting our own course.
How do you choose the cinema locations?
Mainly, we have taken advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.
We knew we wanted to be in inner-city Brisbane, but it is difficult to set up a freehold cinema in high-density areas. We wanted to be in high-density areas because there are lots families and houses - or in the case of the CBD, foot traffic - but the sites also need to check all the boxes to be a cinema.
The New Farm site happened to come up and it had everything going for it, same with the CBD cinema. We had a vague plan to open where we did, but we had to jump on the right opportunities.
What drew you to the site at Red Hill?
A few things. First, we didn’t have a site on the west side of town, and we were looking at the area. We don’t rent our sites, because we prefer to own all our sites freehold. The sites must be large enough for a cinema and have features that will work in a cinema. Plus, the Red Hill site was a heritage site, which we liked, and had previously been a cinema, so it already had some of the necessary features.
What challenges did you face in opening the Red Hill Cinemas?
Red Hill was particularly challenging because it has a history of being a difficult site to develop, and we had quite a few hurdles. The building is a sensitive site for locals because of its history, so our plans had to keep them happy. We also had some objections to the project from nearby competitors.
What are some unexpected benefits of owning a small business?
We have some flexibility as to when we work, because we have the staff that allow us to do that. If I want to go away for a weekend or take a few weeks off to go overseas, I can.
What value do you place in business plans?
I think it’s handy to have a guide for where you want your business to be, but it needs to be realistic and you need to be able to implement it.
Things change all the time — the industry changes, the economy changes — and you need to be flexible and be able to adapt quickly. We have a vision, but we like to be flexible. We’re not going to grow for growth’s sake.
What is the biggest challenge in running this type of business?
The industry has a lot of external forces, including alternative entertainment like streaming services, which place pressure on our business. Cinemas have endured 100-odd years of external pressures, from radio to television and more, where experts have said cinema is dying. But cinemas have always come out the other side. The industry is changing, but we try find our niche, like offering full-service food and serving alcohol, and sites that are unique and give us a point of difference, which all adds to the experience.
What has been the best financial investment you’ve made in your business?
Owning the properties that we are in as freehold. This gives us security. When you are paying rent in a shopping centre, short-term changes in the industry could significantly impact your business, whereas we don’t have that issue. Also, the land values of our sites have increased significantly since we purchased them.
How do you market your business?
We have marketing people that promote our cinemas, and we use Instagram and Facebook, where we have a pretty far reach. We also use more traditional sources like newspapers. Our industry also has a product that has its own marketing industry and markets itself. Everyone wants to see Avengers!
How do you stay up to date with the latest business information?
We have an industry convention every year on the Gold Coast, where exhibitors discuss their upcoming movies. We also have industry magazines and, in a niche industry, you can hear a lot through the grapevine.
Who do you seek advice from for your business?
Usually we can nut out any problems that come our way, thanks to our experience. But if there is something we need advice on, we go to our father. He’s been in the industry a lot longer than us.
What is the greatest lesson you have learned in business?
Trust your instincts. If an opportunity comes up, and if you feel it’s right, take it and back yourself.
What things should someone consider before starting a business?
First, analyse the industry you are looking to get into. Is it saturated? Does it have potential to grow?
Second, do you have capital? Is starting a business now going to be a stretch? You can’t expect to open a business and be an overnight success. Businesses take a lot of time and effort to get going, so you need the capital and stubbornness to weather the down periods and keep going.
Where do you see your business in a year’s or five years’ time?
We know we want to expand and open more sites. We only recently opened Red Hill, so we might look to consolidate for a while. But if another opportunity comes up, we need to take it.