Jul 18, 2013

Classic picture palaces: is this the last show?

The classic Avoca Beach theatre is under threat from a five screen multiplex. Film-maker Mike Rubbo makes the case for preserving this historic "picture palace"

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Avoca Beach Theatre (click to walk around)

Film-maker Mike Rubbo has made a series of short videos supporting the campaign to protect the historic Avoca Beach Theatre on the NSW Central Coast from being redeveloped as a five screen multiplex.

He’s made one on the heritage value of the old theatre that also gives a fascinating account of other “picture palaces” lost to the Central Coast. There’s a video on the financial viability of Avoca Theatre in its current single-screen form and another on the parking implications of the proposed multiplex. He says there’re more to come.

They’re all good but the one I’d especially encourage you to watch is Our Little Treasure. It tells the story of the theatre from when it was built in 1951 until its current status as “the most popular single screen theatre in Australia”.

There’s real drama and intrigue in this little movie, particularly around the negotiations between the owners and interested community members over the future of the theatre. It also raises some difficult issues, like the extent of the film-going community’s interest in how the cinema business is run and developed.

Bear in mind that Mike’s on a mission to save the theatre and is an active participant in the story – see in particular his masterful ‘negotiation’ with the theatre owners over heritage listing! He’s a skilled film maker whose primary objective is to persuade you, not give you both sides of the story.

On the basis of what Mike and other opponents say, I think it would be extraordinary if the Council approved the development as proposed. Parking and heritage protection appear to be huge problems.

The broader issue is the viability of small regional single screen cinemas facing competition from newer multiplex operations. One of his videos, The last of the last, shows the large number of “picture palaces” on the Central Coast that no longer operate as theatres or have been lost entirely to redevelopment.

While in some cases historic buildings can be protected, “saving” the business that shows the pictures can be harder. Other entertainment options are evolving and in some places audiences are ageing. Mike’s nevertheless hopeful classic cinemas will become more popular:

I believe…that as some of us switch to phones and pads for our viewing and others realize how lonely is the multiplex, there’ll be a return to the classic picture palace, though on a smaller scale.

I expect that’s likely to involve some small-scale adaptations, like introducing at least one other screen.

This issue reinforces the advantage of living in a big city. I can see “art house” movies morning, noon and night at the multi-screen Nova in Carlton because there’re enough other people within the catchment to make showing them commercially attractive.

That’s largely a consequence of size, density and accessibility, although it’s also partly due to the increasing homogenousness of the inner city population. Increasing homogeneity on the Central Coast is probably one of the factors driving demand there too, albeit for first release block busters. Avoca Beach is a holiday and retirement village, but it’s now connected to large areas of suburban development.

Mike’s also made videos about some other classic cinemas elsewhere in Australia: Mount Vic Flicks and Swanpool magic.

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2 thoughts on “Classic picture palaces: is this the last show?

  1. melburnite

    The survival of single screen historic cinemas has long been a concern in NSW – their Natiaonl Trust had an on-going campaign for many years. They had and still have a lot more in NSW than Victoria, especially in country areas. The Avoca isnt the only one in NSW still competing against the multiplexes, which of course offer more choices.

    The only single screen historic cinema in Melbourne still showing movies regularly is the Astor, and that has only survived intact through community pressure, dedicated owners, and a specialist program.

    But then there is always the option of simply subdividing (sensitively) the historic cinema, and / or building new screens next door providing both ambience and choice. The Westgarth, the Rivoli, the Yarraville Sun and the Ballarat Regent do this quite well.

    Having now just looked at their facebook page, the issue isnt so much about losing the historic theatre; it would actually stay much as it is, but a large, bulky new development is proposed next door with 4 more screens, and flats, cafes, and underground parking. So I guess they are really bemoaning the loss of their small town ‘feel’ if their old single screen becomes part of a larger development. The perils of growth !

  2. rubbo mike

    There’s some very good news to report about Mount Vic Flicks. Ron and Dianne Bayley closed it on July 7th after 27 years. But community response has been such that, a buyer for the business has been found , a couple with kids from Katoomba, and the hope is that it will re open soon.

    Swanpool cinema stands ready with advice for Mount Vic about how a private cinema business can combine with volunteer help, something that Swanpool managed for 20 years.

    I feel reasonably confident that there’s a place in the market for charming single screens like Avoca , Mount Vic and Swanpool, as people sated with choice, superb home screens, and movies on Ipad, seek a good movie night out in convivial company.

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