Sensory Jam

How the Victoria Preserving Company Pushed Australian Cinema Space into the New Millennium

1Sticky, messy and nauseatingly saccharine, the sensory properties of jam may be a long way from the stylized corporate polish of Australia’s multi-billion dollar film exhibition industry, yet the history of Australian cinema space will be forever indebted to the Victoria Preserving Company; one-time producer of the humblest of sweet treats. Through an analysis of Melbourne’s Jam Factory cinema complex, this article explores the unusual intersection of jam, sensory gratification and contemporary Australian cinema-going at the dawn of the 21st century.

2Encompassing the historic architecture of the former Victoria Preserving Company, South Yarra’s Jam Factory complex provides a gentrified gloss to an inner suburban precinct historically renowned for the manufacturing of jam and preserves. Nestled in the heart of Chapel Street, less than two blocks down from Toorak road and a stone’s throw from the nightclub precinct of Commercial road, the Jam Factory occupies an important part of Melbourne’s cultural heritage; functioning as a quintessential signifier of the city’s traversal from wholesale manufacturing during the early 1900s into the service vectors of digital media technologies and mixed-use retail entertainment destinations at the start of the new millennium.

3Established in 1876, the Victoria Preserving Company, AKA the ‘Jam Factory’, hosts an array of diverse retail and leisure outlets. Included amongst its tenants are Borders Books, Villa & Hut, TGI Fridays, The Pancake Parlour, a Virgin Music Mega-store, an elaborate Village Cinema megaplex, and a range of ancillary restaurants, fashion stores and cafes. According to the venue’s promotional material, “The Jam Factory of today is, in short, ‘jam packed’ with entertainment” (Chapel St Precinct, n.pag.).

4With the original building’s façade and cooling store still intact, the architectural remnants of the Victoria Preserving Factory provide a culturally significant backdrop for what is ostensibly Australia’s most noteworthy cinema venture; Village Roadshow’s megaplex cinema flagship. Replete with fifteen large format screens, including two Gold Class cinemas, a Cinema Europa enclave and an interactive games alcove, The Village Jam Factory signifies Australia’s first foray into cinema-based retail entertainment destinations. In commenting on the opening of the Jam Factory megaplex in 1998, Village Roadshow’s general manager Mr. David Herman said, “The objective was to create Australia’s first non-gambling cinema and lifestyle complex” (Catalano 6).

5More than any other cinema venue, the Village Jam Factory played a key role in pushing Australian film exhibition standards into the new millennium. In an era marked by competing home theatre technologies and diversified sites of media consumption, the Jam Factory’s shift from suburban cinema to lifestyle complex dramatically altered both the business and social practice of movie-going in Australia. Central to this shift was a tripartite marketing strategy which sought to capitalize on: protracted movie-going experiences; sensory stimulation; and, venue promotion.

Experiential Jam

6The promotion of a protracted movie-going experience has been essential to the continued success of the Village Jam Factory. As I have argued elsewhere, the Australian cinema industry of the mid 1990s faced a number of significant incentives for extending the movie going experience beyond the auditorium; not the least being the steady decline of box office takings that occurred during the late 1980s (Downing). In the face of new media technologies such as the internet, DVD and Pay TV, many cinema operators were forced to look beyond the box office as a primary source of profits.

7To this end Village Roadshow effectively used the Jam Factory as a testing ground for the generation of ancillary leisure and retail income streams. During the mid 1990s Village actively promoted the Jam Factory as a space in which audiences could not only see a film, but also engage in a series of expanded retail activities such as shopping, dining and video-game playing. Discussing the development of multi-use cinema venues during the 1990s, Charles Acland has commented that such spaces “…do not situate conditions of spectatorship alone; they also construct relations between public and cinematic practices” (Acland 119).

Sensory Jam

8Far from being a traditional site of film consumption, the Jam Factory set an industry precedent by becoming the nation’s first cinema venue in which audiences were encouraged to engage in an entertainment experience that was, above all, aimed at stimulating the senses. In keeping with the ‘lifestyle destination’ mantra, the Village Jam Factory provided a new generation of Australians with a multi-sensory entertainment experience that could not be emulated by home theatre technologies. Wide sweeping foyers and elaborate ticket and merchandising counters greet the eye; ‘luxury’ stadium seating with wide aisles and broad armrests offer the ‘ultimate’ in tactile comfort; digital surround sound facilities pleasure the ears and a plethora of food and beverage novelties work to gratify the senses of taste and smell.

9More than any other Village cinema outlet, the Jam Factory venue smacks of sugar-coated commerce. With a revenue contribution of over 18%, the Village Roadshow candy bar is the undisputed cash-cow of the enterprise (Australian Film Commission 143). Colloquially known as ‘Lollywood’, the Village confectionary counter is an over-priced explosion of colour and candy that sustains industry revenue through a deliberate appeal to the audience’s sense of taste. This sugar dependency synchronistically mirrors the former success of Henry Jones, the entrepreneur behind Australia’s IXL jam brand, who operated his famous preserving company on the site between 1895 and 1926 (Chapel St Precinct, n.pag.).

Venue Jam

10Village Roadshow’s promotion of the Jam Factory venue over the actual films being screened is indicative of Australia’s primary shift towards retail entertainment based cinema complexes. Unlike the homogenous multiplex venues of the 1970s and 1980s, the Village Jam Factory Complex has been aggressively marketed as a Melbourne icon, capable of offering a unique entertainment experience. This agenda is clearly documented in the 1999 Village Roadshow annual report which, pointing towards a perceived threat of home theatre technologies, proclaimed:

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[In] broadening the cinema going experience … [Village] aims to create an environment of quality entertainment theming and ancillary lifestyle retailing, thus providing a consistently high level of incentive for people to leave their homes for cinema anchored destinations. (Village Roadshow 19)

12To this end, the Jam Factory became the physical embodiment of Village Cinemas’ corporate tagline “Where Movies Live” (Village Cinemas, n.pag.).

13Throughout the late 1990s, a number of similar sites proliferated across Europe, the United States and Canada. Two noteworthy examples of this trend are the Manchester Times building in the UK (initially managed by a short lived Village-Warner synergy) and the Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin; previous home to the Third Reich and later, the Berlin Wall. In both of these examples a similar venue-promotion agenda is clearly at work.

14In reflecting the cultural specificities of their host cities, each of these venues pays a semiotic homage to the previous occupants of their space. The Manchester Times building, for example, retains much of its former architecture and reflects the nocturnal vibrancy of 19th century printing plant. Similarly, the Sony Centre offers an architectural reflection on the complexities of Berlin history and German cinema. In Melbourne, the Jam Factory’s history of jam and jam making are equally preserved.

15Drawing heavily on postmodern architectural styles, the Jam Factory’s interior uses South Yarra’s local history as a backdrop for a schizophrenic collage of seemingly incommensurate time/place references. From the distinctive red-brick cooling tower (located in the centre of the building) one encounters a hybrid fusion of Mediterranean pasta courts, European coffee lounges, Romanesque artwork and columns (complete with weathered-look paint and ‘crumbling’ tops), statues of Hollywood stars, as well as a dazzling gaming alcove and a series of subdued ‘luxury’ (Gold Class) cinemas. Such eclectic displays of visual hyperbole have been prefigured by Umberto Eco, whose discussion on hyperreality addresses an

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imagination which “… demands the real thing, and in order to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake” (Eco 8).

17As a relatively recent contributor to Australian cinema history, the Village Jam Factory has achieved little sustained academic attention, yet its significance must not be undervalued. As Australia’s first cinema-oriented retail entertainment destination, the Village Jam Factory has been crucial in placing Australia into the global film exhibition arena. While the pungent aromas of ripened fruit, vinegar and boiling sugar have long since been replaced by the scent of popcorn and recycled air, the legacy and architecture of jam-making has played a key role in propelling Australian film exhibition into the new millennium.