It's State of the art

LANDMARK: Schoolboys outside the State Cinema in the 1930s.
LANDMARK: Schoolboys outside the State Cinema in the 1930s.

It started one Valentine's Day between the Great Depression and World War II with The 39 Steps, and 75 years on, the State Cinema is still the centre of moviegoing in Nelson. Geoff Collett reports.

There have been some dark days in New Zealand cinema. Some boom times, too, and fads – lots of fads.

But through all that, in Nelson at least, there has been one constant during the past 75 years – the big art deco building on the corner of Trafalgar and Halifax Sts. "A fine structure," as the Nelson Evening Mail called it in mid-February, 1936, days before the city was due to celebrate the opening of its newest picture theatre, the State.

"A real contribution to the architecture of the city," as the mayor put it at the opening ceremony, before the crowds trooped in for a celebratory screening of The 39 Steps, adding his wish that the place would "maintain the high standard of clean, healthy and instructive entertainment established throughout New Zealand".

His hopes might ultimately have been dashed on the latter score – it's a long time since Hollywood could claim, with a straight face, to include cleanliness, healthiness and instructiveness on its mission statement – but the mayor and any other citizen of Nelson at the time would have to be impressed to know that the State still stands, and is still the cathedral for moviegoing in Nelson that it was set up to be 75 years ago on Monday.

They would have no trouble recognising it, either, at least from the street. The outside of the building has changed precious little, and today carries a heritage listing, although the interior has been gutted and rebuilt.

The State was built by local builder James Baird where a market garden once stood, and was leased to the Amalgamated Theatres group, owned by the Moodabe family, who dominated the country's cinema industry for decades (later as part of the Hoyts empire).

In later years, the advent of television dealt a harsh blow to traditional cinema – but a bigger problem, as one of the State's directors, Mark Christensen, says, was the cinema owners' refusal to reinvest in their businesses and upgrade ancient equipment.

For example, in the late 1980s, when Hoyts and the rival Kerridge Odeon chain were pulling the pin on provincial cinemas in the face of collapsing audience numbers, the State didn't even have a stereo sound system.

Kerridge Odeon's Majestic Theatre, further along Trafalgar St towards Bridge St, stopped screening movies altogether in the 1980s (it burnt down in the mid-1990s), while Hoyts handed the State to its staff.

Mr Christensen, however, had seen the future. He had been operating small cinemas for years, first on the West Coast and, about 1990, moving to Nelson to run the Suter Gallery's arthouse theatre.

It was on a trip to Southern California that he got the chance to visit one of the new multiplexes which were rapidly transforming the global movie market – in this case, an 18-screen complex at Century City near Beverly Hills.

"I looked at it and thought, 'It's so obvious – one box office, one candy counter, one projection room and 18 screens'." Anybody could walk in at any time and find a movie about to start.

He immediately started figuring out how he could adapt the idea for back home, and in 1992 he got his chance, hooking up with a couple of business partners, Hamish Bain (who had cinema industry experience) and builder-developer Hudson Malcolm.

They looked at various sites around town but got the chance to buy the State building from the Baird family, and grabbed it, terminating the lease and setting to gutting the place and redeveloping it as a four-screen complex.

While its interior might have been the legacy of a dying age, its exterior worked well for their plans.

"It's what you'd call a practical art deco interpretation of the movie palace era," Mr Christensen says. The building was extraordinarily solid and "evocative of the golden age of cinema".

There were those convinced that the golden age was long gone, he recalls. Multiplexes were still a new idea here, Nelson being only the fifth city to get one.

"When we announced our plans ... a lot of people in town thought, `Oh, those poor guys are going to lose their shirts – there's never been four cinemas in Nelson like that'."

In fact, his certainty that moviegoers would respond to a multiplex as they had overseas, and turn out in droves, was amply justified.

Attendance numbers reached the company's most optimistic five-year projections inside a year, and eventually doubled that.

In the 1990s, Nelson claimed to have the highest rate of moviegoing per head of population in the country.

Mr Christensen's founding partners moved on, and he approached the Potton family, who bought into the business and remain involved today.

But, as he points out, the cinema industry, like so much else, is cyclical. In the 2000s, it has been a bit tougher. Audience numbers have been falling since the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and there are signs of another wave of consolidations and takeovers – although independents like the State are in a stronger position than they were when he joined the industry in the 1980s.

Mr Christensen, who is something of a technophile, sees the continuing advances in technology as the key to the future, already unleashed with digital sound and projection systems.

He tells of how he's still got a copy of the booklet produced for the State's 1936 opening, "in which they made all the usual claims – you know, state-of-the-art sound, latest technology, heating and comfort and sight lines, and all the rest of it".

And that's been the theme down the years since – he boasts of how the State was the first New Zealand cinema to have Dolby stereo on every screen, the first to have 100 per cent digital sound, and in the vanguard of the move to digital projection and 3D screens.

It's more than just gimmickry or a geekish obsession with equipment, though. Mr Christensen's basic philosophy about movies has always been the "suspension of disbelief" that allows moviegoers to immerse themselves in a film, with the job of technology being to make sure it doesn't distract or detract from the experience.

He may be biased, but he's convinced that the State has done that as well as anyone down the years. These days, it has six large cinemas – two were added in 2000 – and three little ones, set up with DVD projection and smaller screens for small audiences (an arrangement Mr Christensen doesn't much like – it was technology introduced after he left the company about a decade ago after differences with his partners, and he inherited it when he returned in 2007).

More change is in the wind. The foyer needs a major overhaul, and plans have been developed; beyond that, the four original cinemas themselves are eventually in for a major refurbishment.