Let's save the Isaac Theatre Royal

Chance to create a 'beautiful home for movies'

CHARLIE GATES
Last updated 19:05 14/06/2013
Isaac Theatre Royal
KIRK HARGREAVES/Fairfax NZ

WORTH SUPPORTING: The Isaac Theatre Royal in Gloucester St is being restored.

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OPINION: Film reviewer and blogger Charlie Gates makes a plea for local cinephiles to get in behind the fundraising campaign for the Isaac Theatre Royal.

Christchurch has always been at a disadvantage compared to other New Zealand cities when it comes to the New Zealand International Film Festival.

The problem is, the festival has no proper home in Christchurch. It doesn't have the large auditorium it needs. Dunedin has the Octagon's Regent Theatre, Wellington has the Embassy and Auckland has the Civic, but Christchurch has nothing.

Before the Canterbury earthquakes, this lack of a large venue meant ticket sales suffered in Christchurch compared to other cities. The last time I compiled some figures, back in 2009, it showed that Wellington sold one festival ticket for every five people living in the greater region, while Christchurch sold one ticket for every 21 people living in the city.

The great thing about a large venue like the beautiful Embassy theatre in Wellington, is the festival can sell lots of tickets for popular films and remain viable by capitalising on their most attractive films.

Since the earthquakes, the situation is trickier still in Christchurch. We lost every arthouse cinema in the city, the Regent on Worcester multiplex - which successfully hosted the festival in 2009 - and the Hoyts multiplex on Moorhouse Ave.

It's a sad state of affairs. And it is even sadder when you consider that Cathedral Square in the heart of Christchurch, was once the cinematic capital of the southern hemisphere. You could stand on the steps of Christ Church Cathedral and be within a mile (1.6 kilometres) of nine grand picture palaces.

In its 1940s and 50s heyday, there were 9000 cinema seats in Cathedral Square. Imagine what that was like! Imagine being in Cathedral Square when 9000 cinemagoers poured out of the picture palaces opening on to that public space.

Before the earthquake, there were a few reminders of this illustrious past. The Regent on Worcester had been diced into a multiplex, but the building still stood; the art deco facade of the State Theatre on Gloucester St still existed, albeit hidden behind 1970s fibreglass panels; and the Avon theatre still stood, though it was used for a sports bar.

Even those traces have gone. The Regent and the Avon are now a patch of gravel. There is not one single reminder of Christchurch's glorious cinematic past left standing in Cathedral Square.

But, there is hope.

Just around the corner from Cathedral Square, in Gloucester St, the Isaac Theatre Royal is being restored.

The 1250-seat theatre was a beautiful venue and it will be again, when restored and reopened in the first half of next year.

This restoration also offers hope for Christchurch film lovers.

The New Zealand International Film Festival hopes to install a large screen, digital projector system and speakers as part of the restoration. This will mean it can be used for festival films as well as the performing arts, making the theatre a multipurpose venue for Christchurch.

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The project has already won backing from Christchurch City Council with a $70,000 grant toward the estimated $280,000 costs. But the festival needs to raise the remainder.

You can donate toward the project at this website: boosted.org.nz/projects/digital-cinema-for-the-isaac-theatre-royal

This offers a unique opportunity for Christchurch to regain a bit of its extraordinary cinematic past and create a beautiful home for movies in the centre of the city.

Movies could come home again and we can make sure that when we rebuild Christchurch, we make it much better than it was before.

Charlie Gates' The Picture Palace blog can be found on stuff.co.nz.

- The Press

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