We’ll miss our cinemas when they’re gone
Theaters across the country are fighting to survive in the absence of Hollywood blockbusters – and their owners want New Zealanders to think about what they stand to lose if they close for good.
Aas a teenager, I spent three days a week watching the world slide through the doors of the Roxy cinema. While I was polishing glasses, well-heeled older couples quietly sipped chardonnay in the restaurant. As I wiped the tables, frightened parents gathered their children. And while I served ice cream, high school and college students were laughing and taking their first steps towards romance. Some evenings we organized school trips and dozens of young children ran into the vast upper hall of the cinema. On others, we’ve had weddings and I’ve mixed espresso martinis behind the bar for the faded but excited family members. Most of the nights were quiet; Wellingtonians simply drifted off to laugh and cry and watch movies with others.
These memories remain vivid for me because they brought me closer to my grandfather, who grew up working at Roxy (then called the Capitol). Think: we were doing the exact same tasks, in exactly the same place, separated by only eight decades.
But I wasn’t the only person affected by the Roxy. Like any small cinema, it is a community center. It gives out tickets for the local school raffle, hosts the local sports team’s awards night, and provides space for the showing of local and home-made films. More than anything else, a night at the movies “is a special event,” says Roxy co-owner Valentina Dias. âFor families, it’s that special anniversary outing. For others, it’s that first date … [Cinemas] are beautiful buildings, but they also serve a broader social and community purpose.
And, worryingly, these community centers are on the verge of collapse. Like all hospitality businesses, when the foreclosure hit, their revenues plummeted. But unlike other hotel companies, the reopening of Aotearoa offered little relief. The release of new films relied heavily on a handful of global distributors, and the New Zealand market was too small to encourage them to expose their intellectual property to the risks of piracy on the Internet. Many studio release dates have been delayed; others were sent directly to streaming services. And even as the Kiwis began to venture outside their homes, theaters found themselves without blockbusters to lure them in. As a result, many cinemas have been operating at a loss since then. Gorjan Markovski, Managing Director of Academy Cinemas Auckland, said: âWe’re going to work really hard to make sure we can keep our doors open, but it’s very risky for us. The Roxy sells half as many tickets as it used to be, with flow-on effects for selling lollipops, drinks, and ice cream (the real money makers of movie theaters).
Recognizing the dangers posed to its business model by the rise of streaming services years ago, the Roxy began expanding its tourism offerings, including tours of the historic building and cinema-themed events for passengers. cruise ships and Tolkien fans. âIt took us five good years to establish ourselves in the tourism market, to regularly bring in groups of tourists and international companies, mainly from the United States,â explains Dias. âWe thought we were really smart back then! Either way, we could see where the streaming was going and the challenges of the cinema. At the start of 2020, 25% of Roxy’s income came from tourism. But with Covid-19, everything also collapsed. âObviously, it went off right away. It will take time for this to come back, if at all.
AAnd it’s not just small independent theaters like the Roxy and the Academy that are struggling. The Embassy Cinema, Wellington’s most famous cinema, has reduced its opening to just three evenings a week. There are unconfirmed rumors among staff and operators that Reading Cinemas, which owns many of Aotearoa’s largest cinemas, is looking for opportunities to sell or convert its large now unprofitable properties.
“Once [cinemas] are gone, I don’t think they will come back, âsays Dias. âThe barriers to entry are so high that we’re not going to find cinemas that open when the weather is clear.
âProjectors cost over $ 100,000 each. That doesn’t count the seats, the lights, and all that other stuff that you need. It’s not just something that someone else is going to come in and reopen. “
Movie operators recognize that the government’s wage subsidy kept their doors open long after they should have closed. But as they try to make their way through the wreckage of the pandemic, they increasingly find themselves falling through the cracks. They are not part of the film production community and therefore do not correspond to many of the grants and specialized grants that have been put in place for the entities in this space. They are also not seen as an appropriate solution for the support provided to the artistic and cultural community, which tends to focus on large events held during a limited season. They are also not part of the music scene: they should be a âregularâ concert venue for that.
âIt was a real fight,â Dias grimaces. “We don’t naturally adapt to any type of historical thinking.”
Without the specialized support that other industries have received, short-term survival will be incredibly difficult for many theaters.
An evening at the theater, ballet, or opera is – due to cost and culture – an experience generally limited to the middle and upper class. A night at the movies, on the other hand, is a much more affordable cultural experience. âCinema appeals with a much wider brush for a whole range of people,â says Dias. âYou can get them to come together and share an experience in a room. Cinema is able to do this with a number of different demographic and socio-economic groups and appeals to a large population, in a way that other places cannot seem to do. We could lose that.
So what to do? Dias has a plea. “OK, don’t you want to see any movies?” It’s not our fault, but maybe instead of having a Nespresso at home, have a cup of tea. Or rent the theater for a birthday party or come and have dinner.
âDon’t take us for granted because there is no guarantee that we can continue. And once we’re gone, we’re gone for good.
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