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Saving Sydney's art-house cinemas

Jack Sargeant

Jack Sargeant is an expert in subversive, radical, outsider and underground culture. He is the author of Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression, Naked Lens: Beat Cinema, Cinema Contra Cinema, the editor of numerous other books on film and art, and has curated art and film shows across the world.

Against the terrifying morass of homogenous ‘fun’ and ‘family entertainment’, there is a necessity for cultural choice and wider possibilities. Yet for cinema audiences in Sydney the options are quickly running out.

The press has made much of the fact that cinema audiences in Australia were down 14% in the first half of the year, a decrease that was blamed variously on the popularity of DVDs and home entertainment systems, disappointing releases coming from Hollywood, and ticket prices. But multiplex cinemas are national and multinational chains, the movies don’t matter as much as the food and drink sales. You want to know why so many mainstream movies are simplistic combinations of explosions and dumb humour? The audience is suffering one big sugar rush and can’t face anything more complex.

Now Sydney’s cinema culture is mourning the loss of Glebe’s Valhalla, one of the city’s handful of independent cinemas, and currently up for auction (and it may be sold to a consortium who will develop it into a cinematheque, or it may be converted into apartments). Paddington’s art-house Chauvel cinema has also been closed.

The death of one cinema, and possible demise of another, leaves a scar on the city’s artistic and cultural landscape that may never heal. There are the Dendy and the Palace chains, but these show well publicised first run ‘big’ indie and foreign language movies, not the retrospectives and classics that play in a cinematheque, and rarely the often under publicised documentaries that once played at the Valhalla.

In John Waters’ low-budget comedy Cecil B. Demented, the filmmaking anarchist of the title attacks multiplex audiences as they watch Patch Adams and sabotages the shooting of the thankfully mythical Forest Gump sequel, all in the name of independent cinema. Desperate times lead to desperate measures. What, then, is to be done to save cinema in Sydney?

Screen culture

Sydney has a culture of film, not just in the presence of the industry and the studios, but also manifested through film festivals and special events. These range from numerous culturally specific festivals to the wannabe indulgence of Tropfest. Not only do these events promote the city to both industry and tourists, presumably areas of importance to the government at city, state and national level, but more importantly they function as a crucial element of aesthetic and socio-political culture. These events serve as a conduit between filmmakers, communities, audiences, and emergent talents, acting as zones from which new visual cultures can emerge.

Film cultures need to be continually nurtured. Hence the importance of independent art-house cinemas screening unusual movies. And these are not merely cinemas that will show the latest in avant-garde Asian cinema or the new wave of radical documentary, but all manner of films that reflect the vagaries of cinematic culture: local, national, and international.

An art-house cinema serves many purposes. It should be the place to see a foreign language film that has limited distribution, such as Noe’s Irreversible, or where an audience can see a new print of an old favourite on the big screen, likeTati’s Playtime. It should screen underground movies and retrospectives. The art-house cinema should be a zone where all censorship is suspended, where a movie like Passolini’s Salo or Clarke’s Ken Park can be screened to an audience free of the contrived moral outrage of fundamentalist tongue clickers.

To lose an art-house cinema is to lose choice. The art-house screens films that are rarely, if ever, screened at the multiplex. While the independent chains have to screen the better known indie movies, they have little screen space for retrospectives or true obscurities. Without the art-house cinema the more eclectic, avant-garde and radical films on celluloid are lost, becoming mere DVD ghosts in the machine. Filmmakers and audiences need film as material. The projected image is superior to the digital image. Watching art-house films on home entertainment systems presupposes availability and removes the pleasure of stumbling accidentally into a classic.

In an ideal world there would be extensive government funding for art-house cinemas, but that is not the only answer. Yes, Sydney should have its own ACMI-variant (as should all state capitals) but this is possibly wishful thinking. The situation is critical; audiences and cinemas need to work together.


Cinemas like the Chauvel cannot compete with the bigger independent chains. As one person put it: “Where would you rather see a movie, somewhere that has saggy seats, or the nice cinema down the road?” It is pointless for the Chauvel to screen the same movies at the same time as the cinemas 5 minutes away. Instead it needs to focus on the neglected, the obscure, and on cult audiences. The cinematheque at the Chauvel screens retrospective seasons and the Valhalla screened all manner of obscurities. The Chauvel should devote itself entirely to this kind of film programming.

Programmers need to adapt and challenge audiences. The midnight movie has helped finance many an art-house cinema, and audiences are out there. The success of the Cult Sinema Mondays at the Annandale Hotel, which has now been running for 3 years, suggests that a loyal local audience who want to see cult movies does exist. The Scala in London survived in part on its legendary Blue Mondays, screening art-house-sex-staples, Thundercrack and Café Flesh weekly to an enthusiastic audience of punks, stoners, leather boys, students and film buffs.

The Chauvel could work together with local universities to run seasons based on academic courses. They could work with film festivals. Absurdly, given the relatively small audiences, the Tibetan, Russian and Greek film festivals are running simultaneously in Sydney throughout early September, effectively working against each other, and against any audience who may actually want to see films in all the festivals.


A further problem is that audiences are aging. The demographic for art-house cinema audiences is increasingly middle aged. Young hipsters may want to see more films, but their disposable income is too low and the demands on it too high; a ticket for a rock concert may exceed $50, that’s potentially 3 cinema trips missed.

For people in the industry, or hoping to get into the industry, there needs to be a radical rethinking of what film is. If you are interested in cinema you should demand to see films beyond the multiplex. If you value cinema, explore it, engage with it, don’t merely expect to be entertained by it. For those who claim to be interested in the industry remember that film culture demands real commitment.

Audiences could also contribute to the running of the Chauvel. Why not start a scheme where members ‘sponsor’ a seat for a year? Five hundred people each sponsoring a seat (or a brick, or a fixture, or even a member of staff) for $2000 could raise a million dollars overnight. Is $2000 too much? People spend hundreds of thousands more on buying inner city apartments in order to be ‘where the action is.’ What will these places be worth if in a year’s time the only inner city activity left is shopping?

There are other modes of operation. Could a cinema be run as a cooperative? The Valhalla currently lies vacant, but it is still a cinema. Could it be resurrected through a combination of sponsors and donations? Is there a way in which such donations could be written off against tax? Or should it just be allowed to rot, or handed over to developers?


Following a public meeting on August 11 a group of concerned citizens formed Film Lovers For Independent Cinema (FLICs, ), led by filmmaker Tom Zubrycki, ASDA director Richard Harris, filmmaker Amy Tovey and Jonathan Wald. The group has formed with the twin aims of assessing the need for, and strategic planning towards, creating a publicly funded cinema culture centre, and secondly to keep the Chauvel open. Backed by local film critics and with possible support from within the industry, the campaign is an acknowledgement of the desperate need for good and varied forms of cinema in Sydney.

Currently advocating letter writing, website creation, and campaigning, FLICs emerges from the recognition that something has to be done to save Sydney’s visual culture. Whether or not FLICs will succeed depends on the people of Sydney and the film culture. Now is the time to become involved.

[FLICs has met with Sydney City Council which has decreed that any lease agreement for the Chauvel has to go through Mayor Clover Moore and the Council’s Cultural Committee, which means that there must be public discussion of the agreement in case the cinema is leased to a commercial operator. In the meantime the Valhalla was passed in at auction at $3.15m. Eds]

Jack Sargeant is an expert in subversive, radical, outsider and underground culture. He is the author of Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression, Naked Lens: Beat Cinema, Cinema Contra Cinema, the editor of numerous other books on film and art, and has curated art and film shows across the world.

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 18

© Jack Sargeant; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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