Indie cinemas coming back

HAVING A LAUGH: Mates ‘Eskimo’, left, and Eric Stanaway enjoy the full cinema experience at Dargaville’s Anzac Theatre.
HAVING A LAUGH: Mates ‘Eskimo’, left, and Eric Stanaway enjoy the full cinema experience at Dargaville’s Anzac Theatre.

Eric and his mate Eskimo recline in seats four and five, front row, ready for some mindless Tom Cruise blockbuster action.

Having tried every position in Dargaville's Anzac Theatre, this, says Eric, is the "sweet spot". To achieve precisely the right degree of spinal slump, they have propped their shoeless feet on exactly three booster cushions.

Regulars, they are on to their fourth loyalty card (a scheme for which they claim authorial credit) and having ticked off the free ice-cream, are gunning for the free ticket. No, says Eskimo, he's discerning, he doesn't just come to everything that's on here. But he did see Riddick twice. It's great here, he says, it looks like an old cinema and he doesn't have to drive 45 minutes to Whangarei to see a film any more.

The four cheerful young lads sitting with a box of Corona in the 1986 Nissan Stagea outside say the same. What else is there to do in Dargaville? Well, they say, what they're doing now, which isn't much.

The Anzac Theatre may look old, but isn't. It celebrated its first birthday last week by selling $5 tickets, and its story is the heartwarming tale of the renaissance of small-town independent cinemas driven by passionate communities.

Built and run almost entirely with volunteer labour, the single screen in this Northland town of just 4555 residents gets its share of the blockbusters.

When they first opened, television show Seven Sharp came and shot something the locals think made them look like hicks. "What a farce, snigger, snigger," says cinema project manager Grant Waldron, darkly.

They don't want to be mocked, but the locals can admit Dargaville isn't exactly a vibrant hub.

While Eric and Eskimo await Edge of Tomorrow, the streets outside are almost empty.

"The cinema has doubled what's on in the town in the evening, really," says trustee Jakoba Puharich.

Another trustee, English-born Josie Scott, can offer a wider perspective.

"The reality is that there is not much of a social life here," says Scott, who arrived in 1996, so isn't yet considered a local. "There's not that much to do and this has certainly improved that. If you drove down the main street at 8pm on Saturday night, you would see tumbleweed."

Dargaville once had three cinemas. Even little Ruawai - population 426 - down the road had its own screen at one stage.

Anzac Theatre trustee Kaye Welch's parents owned the kiosk at the front of the enormous old Empire "picture theatre", the last of the three to close in the early 1980s, and remembers late-night horror screenings, the Saturday matinees, standing up for the national anthem and an intermission after 20 minutes.

"Friday night was a big night for movies in Dargaville," Welch says.

That's a familiar pattern, says Waikato University film lecturer Geoff Lealand: film had its heyday between the 1930s and 1950s when many would go to the cinema every Saturday night almost regardless of what was showing - explaining why big, single-screen auditoriums were widespread.

On the East Cape, for example, small towns such as Ruatoria and Tolaga Bay had their own cinemas.

But the growth of television, suburbanisation and car ownership, and the increasing cost of modernising cinema equipment, saw a decline from the 1960s onwards.

But there has been a recent recovery for independent cinema and they now number about 100 (documented on Lealand's online fan site Cinemas of New Zealand). Lealand says it's a chicken-and-egg thing: there are corresponding growths in art house cinema and in the older, grey-haired crowd who enjoy such films and want "something more than a popcorn experience".

As a result, cinemas like Wellington's Tenthouse offer themed meals during a recent National Opera season.

Lealand despairs at seeing his students watch movies on laptops and cellphones, and says the big question is whether this cohort of enthusiastic older viewers will be replaced: "I don't know the answer and I hope so but I tend to vacillate between optimism and pessimism."

Puharich remembers going to the Empire as a child; then taking her children there but when it came to taking her grandchildren to the cinema she had to make the 45-minute drive to Whangarei.

She began campaigning for a new local cinema back in 1989; Kaipara mayor Graeme Ramsey had a similarly fruitless campaign during his 1998-2004 reign, then the two got together six years ago, opening a bank account with $100 in it and calling for volunteers to form a trust.

Their first screenings were modest affairs - film nights at a converted kumara packhouse 10 minutes from town.

At the Kumara Box, enterprising kumara-growers Warren and Mavis Suckling have turned two bays of their shed into a kitsch exhibition and show about the local industry.

Warren, who gives tours under his alter ego, Ernie, steers me inside: "Look in there - pretty hard-case, eh?" he says, gesturing to a makeshift auditorium full of props - pictures of local kumara-growing legends, an alligator skeleton, shells, and relief maps. Surrounded by this ephemera, they packed 65 people on to folding chairs and old sofas and sold out six consecutive screenings of Boy. "It was pretty basic, but people had fun."

Meanwhile, work continued apace on a permanent venue.

The council offered space in a community hall.

While retaining the old-school ornate character of the place, they ripped out the existing interior - an old library - repiled it to handle the extra weight, installed the 64 seats, stairs, air conditioning, screen and projection room, then decorated.

They wanted it to be the best it could be. "We didn't cut corners," says Waldron, a self-employed furniture maker, who spent "hundreds" of hours on the job and admits that by the end, he was "worn out. It dominated my life".

He points out some of the choicest features: "I reckon you're getting at least as good as [the city cinemas]."

When they opened, says Puharich, "we had a lot of people who went in and said ‘wow'."

Waldron's wife Cherry: "I don't think they expected anything to be as nice as it was."

T HE SOLE full-time employee is manager Vern Woods, a wry, rumpled chap who was a self-employed computer technician and amateur radio enthusiast. He broke a lifelong vow never to write a CV ("I dislike the idea of book-ending your life") to get the job.

When Woods attended a conference of independent cinemas, aside from what he described as a lot of chip-on-shoulder grumbling about the "big boys", there was plenty of envy around the volunteer model that allows the Anzac to operate with just one employee.

For each screening, a volunteer is rostered on to sell tickets and clean up afterwards. They are rewarded with the permanently reserved seat 1A.

Scott, a local counsellor and trainer, manages the volunteers - she had plenty of experience, having run the volunteer network for the local hospice. Originally, she says, they advertised for help, and "I tapped all my friend's shoulders and said ‘how about doing the best volunteer job in town?' Because it is the best." They now have about 40 volunteers, 20 of them regular, aged from 15 to 82 (Scott's mother-in-law, Lilian). "It used to be a bit laborious, but now . . . there's a film they want to see they will ring up Vern to ask when it's showing and say ‘put me down for it'. "I love it," she says with enthusiasm. "I know everyone who comes in, and it is quite social."

Inside the projection room is the second reason why the Anzac Theatre can expect to break even on year one. Racks of films sit on a shelf, not in old-style 35mm reels, but stored on hard drives packed into padded grey courier boxes.

The hard drives are "ingested" (never copied) into the cinema's computer system, a $180,000 set-up so simple it can be run from a laptop in the kiosk if Woods isn't there. "I could never call myself a projectionist," he says. "It's literally a couple of mouse clicks."

Digital cinema has made the equation work for cinemas like the Anzac. It reduces the freight outlay, removes the cost of paying a trained projectionist, and with more prints circulating, it means they don't have to wait until the major centres have had their fill of the latest blockbuster before it arrives on their screens.

Conversely, for those older independents without the money to upgrade their projection equipment - such as Ohakune's Kings Theatre, which announced its closure last week - digital could also be their death knell.

In the Anzac Theatre's case, it has allowed them the variety you need on such a small potential customer base.

Woods now has a reasonable handle on what works: their best film was Despicable Me 2, followed by the British real-life drama Philomena, starring Judi Dench. Up here, they like period dramas, true stories, and in particular, anything involving Dame Judi.

"It's an art," considers Woods. "It's not something I've got down but you learn as you go and I've got hunches I follow . . . you look at your demographics, who your punters are and you try tailor stuff to them . . . when you get a response you think ‘aha'."

Last week, they had reached film 101 - engaging Kiwi drama Fantail - and show up to 10 different films each week. "What's kept the job interesting is that I get to choose," says Woods. "And I am a big fan of getting people to move out of their comfort zone . . . I pick films I think I can tweak people on to."

A woman comes in to check tonight's screening times, whether Edge of Tomorrow would be suitable for her 13-year-old son, and whether it's OK to leave him on his own. Woods spruiks: "You should come [too]! It has Tom Cruise in it, if that does it for you?" He tails off. "It doesn't for me."

As the crowds emerge from the evening screening, Dargaville is now completely deserted. "The cinema is fast becoming the town's heart," argues Scott.

Puharich, with the authority of a lifetime's cinema-going, explains: "It's a community experience; its an outing, an easy one for people, you don't have to get dressed up or take a plate and it doesn't cost much."

Sunday Star Times