Well, it looks like we’ve lost our cosy, homely little movie theatre at Avoca Beach.
It’s heading off in a new direction, soon to boast four screens, a café, a gallery, five residential units and who knows what else.
How did it happen?
How did an extremely active committee and a community largely united in love for the little venue, lose the battle to keep it small scale, or even to reach a compromise?
Firstly the owners, Norman and Beth Hunter, have been very determined.
This battle has been going on for 16 years now and they have never wavered.
Nor have they been willing to sit down and talk with the community.
They’ve come to some public meetings but never responded to us reaching out to them via intermediaries.
Secondly, they appear to have very deep pockets.
Fighting and winning in the Land and Environment Court, must have cost a packet, reinforcing what we’ve always suspected, that the theatre is profitable.
We lost in part because, having the theatre as a platform, they were able to control the story better.
Their ace in hand was the soothing reassurance that they are keeping the original theatre.
That message, endlessly repeated, dried up much of the opposition.
But is it true?
The theatre is a rectangular box with a pitched roof.
Unless you’re saving that box and roofline, the exterior walls, you can’t say you’re keeping the theatre.
They are saving two walls, it is true.
Of these, the wall on Burns St, facing South End Park, is blank and of little interest.
The west wall, with the front doors, is also retained, but those doors will open onto a large, new toilet block which will replace the ticket counter, hardly an appealing entrance.
So perhaps, it’ll be an entrance no longer.
They haven’t told us.
The key wall to save, the one that is photographed all the time and appears in all the tourist brochures, the beauty shot if you like, is the wall with the French doors and the terrace leading to the lawn.
This is gone in the new development, replaced by a two storey foyer, and that has been a major reason for the community’s opposition, even fury, over many years.
It’s not just this postcard view of course, but those French doors, which lead into the beautifully proportioned foyer.
At the moment, the foyer is crammed with giftware, but you can see, in the photo, how beautiful it used to look in the mid-2000s, and could look again, if they were truly keeping the original theatre.
I do wonder whether patrons realise how much of what they now love will be gone.
Perhaps folks hope that what will replace these heritage areas will be somehow even better.
If this was so, then surely we would have seen wonderful artist impressions of the new interior, all to win us over.
But they’ve shown us nothing.
Only exterior artist’s impressions.
Their second message has been equally persuasive: many patrons have been convinced that if the theatre did not expand, it would have to close, and units would be built on the block.
This doom and gloom story has been countered in several ways, but sadly, people still take it as gospel.
Other little cinemas up and down the Coast are doing well, not closing their doors, including Mount Vic flicks, Huskisson, Sawtell, the Regal, the Lake, and at Laurieton, so those who believe single screens are doomed, can go see for themselves.
The reasons why Avoca Theatre has been in dire straits, according to the Hunters, is that the distributors have them in a vice, that they are forced to show the same film many times a day, even when it’s not drawing a crowd, and the only relief is to have more screens where they can park non performing films or make room for new ones.
This pressure can be largely avoided by doing what is called sub running.
This means a theatre takes movies, not when they’re released nationally, but four to five weeks later, when the same movies have way less restrictions on them.
Loyal fans are happy to wait, happy to hear about a movie before deciding to see it.
This is another reason why I believe that if the Avoca Theatre was truly in trouble, it would be doing more sub-runs than it does.
The Hunters have not been very forthcoming about what will come.
Maybe they haven’t needed to be.
Just saying: “more of the same but bigger and better,” has been enough.
More movies, more choice, more live shows, more community activities.
It sounds good until you check the downside.
To do that, you need to take a look at other historic cinemas and see what usually happens when you take a charming single screen and hollow it out to accommodate three or four more screens.
I got on the train to Bowral and had a look at the Empire theatre, for example.
The original classic façade still looks interesting from the street, but the entrance is down an alley, up stairs, leading to a corridor with four screens off to the side, functional but impersonal, nothing close Avoca’s charm.
The Ritz at Port Macquarie is also spectacular at first sight, but the grand street entrance is long gone, and you go up a flight of stairs to a maze of five screens above shops.
Parking and heritage were the two issues which took up the most time in court.
To my amazement, an agreement was reached in the hearing that there is virtually no parking problem in Avoca.
Even if there was, in 2006, the theatre made a deal with the previous council, basically buying the right to pave public land for $200,000 to meet their parking obligations.
Public land paved for a private business?
And just to shore that up, their barrister pointed to the fact that in 1951, the new theatre was licensed for 500 seats.
Now, since the new four-screen complex will be approximately 615 seats, up from around 290, it’s not so much more.
Council’s barrister was silent.
I wanted to leap up and say: “More or not, in 1951 there was no parking problem in Avoca,” but we were not allowed to address the court, once the hearings moved to Sydney for a long three days.
It was depressing how the barrister for the development dominated the proceedings, speaking for at least 80 per cent of the time, vigorously cross-examining witnesses, whereas council’s barrister, our side, was mostly silent and did very little cross-examination.
Their guy was, indeed, brilliant, especially on heritage, getting council’s own heritage expert to concede that the building and the interior had little or no heritage significance.
This contradicts what the National Trust has said again and again, but the Trust was not in court.
Nor were numerous other experts, all of whom agreed that the original theatre should be visible and protected.
What was so clever was the way the National Trust was selectively quoted to make it seem as if the only heritage value of the cinema was as a social meeting place, an activity, not a building. From there it was a short step for their barrister to establish that the Hunters themselves, as part of the founding family, were what would carry the heritage on into the future though their running of the place.
Never mind that for most Avoca people, it’s the scale, the charm, the beauty of the place they love, none of which got an airing in court.
So all those heartfelt letters we’ve written to council over the years might as well not have been sent.
The word, beauty, which we’ve used so often, was never once mentioned in four days of hearings.
Apparently only the BBC, which said the theatre was one of the 10 most beautiful in the world, is allowed to use that word.
Some day this story will surely be on the bookshelves or on the screen, being our greatest drama to date, but that will have to wait until what’s behind-the-scenes is brought to light through freedom of information.
Goodbye little treasure from all of us, who did our best, which was just not enough.
Mar 3, 2017
Mike Rubbo, Avoca Beach