FILM - CLOSURE
|Bums on seats will have a new
meaning when Canberra’s Center Cinema closes on June 1. Most of its
500 seats are for sale. The price varies with their condition. When
installed in 1967, the seats were innovative, retracting to allow
patrons to walk, not squeeze past. As the seating aged, the likelihood
of slipping off during a movie increased. One motivation for purchase is
to take revenge with an axe.
The rise and fall of the Center Cinema
tracks the history of screen culture since television shut down hundreds
of venues from the 1950s. Opening in 1967, Centre Cinema met the double
demand for a theatre with a non-mainstream programme.
Center Cinema has always been an
independent exhibitor, conducted since the late 1970s by Andrew Pike and
his spouse Dr Merrilyn Fitzpatrick. Their debt-laden family business is
unable to afford a refit. The closure leaves Canberra with the twin
Electric Shadows which they opened in 1979. Survival as an independent
exhibitor-distributor has required adapting to the changes in the
industry by filling niches. Before SBS killed foreign-language imports,
they did well by importing French works.
“The worst excesses of bullying by the
majors are gone”, Pike says. “The requirement to book blocks of
films is over. Independents can now bid for what we want.” Although
economists have explained that what he had thought was “collusion”
is no more than “unconscious parallelism”, the pressures from the
big boys have not disappeared. The word that sends a chill up my spine
is Policy with a capital-P. Major distributors impose Policy of a
minimum number of weeks, screenings and session times”.
The other problem is getting exclusive
rights to enough mainstream movies to ensure a profitable operation.
“The chains are voracious”. During the past decade, the number of
screens in Canberra more than doubled towards forty. “Our solid
audience has been attracted away by an oversupply of cinemas more than
by videos. Yet, a repertory programme of black-and-whites and silents is
As more decisions for the chains are made
in Los Angeles, Pike has responded by personalizing his cinemas. In
contrast to the global on-line blurbs, he writes every word of an email
newsletter to 4000 subscribers. “Independents cannot complete head-on
so we emphasize the local and the idiosyncratic, hosting festivals,
video launches and fundraisers”.
Andrew Pike became known to movie buffs
from 1980 as the co-author of Australian
Film 1900 to 1977. Less recognised is his role in Strictly
Ballroom and Shine where
early engagement in the distribution campaign allowed for input at the
script development stage. Pike’s personal favourite, however, remains Road
to Nhill, the understatement of which matches his personal style.
“I enjoy working with documentary makers because ego is less an issue
than in features”.
The couple set up Ronin Films in 1974,
which now distributes video documentaries to educational and community
groups. Pike had co-directed Angels of War on the war in Papua-New Guinea seen through the eyes
of the locals. He has recently returned to production, working with an
Beyond reinventing their own commercial
survival, what inspires Pike and Fitzpatrick is a project to regenerate
country towns by making film-screenings into social gatherings.
Typically, they are donating 150 of the seats to a community theatre in