New cinemas, new makers

Dan Edwards

The restored Roxy cinema, Bingara, NSW

The restored Roxy cinema, Bingara, NSW

Recent years have seen an explosion of new cinemas opening across regional NSW with evidence of a subsequent upswing of interest in filmmaking in some regional areas. For urban cinephiles it might seem incomprehensible that since the 1970s many Australians have grown up outside the cities having never attended a cinema. The adoption of new business models and a healthy injection of funds from local councils and particularly from the NSW government have seen this situation radically transformed in the last 5 years.

The absence of local cinemas was one of the first things Jack Ritchie noticed when he began work in 1996 as a Regional Arts Development Officer (see Eccles) in the New England region of northern New South Wales. Ritchie initiated research which established that very few NSW towns with a population of 15,000 or less (about 75% of towns in the state) had cinemas. On the other hand, Glenn Innes, the town in which Ritchie was based, had enjoyed a successful volunteer-run cinema for many years.

This prompted Ritchie and a group of regional arts workers to submit a report to the NSW Ministry of Arts on cinemas in regional NSW. It contained 3 key recommendations: that a group be formed linking regional arts offices, the NSW Film and Television Office (FTO) and the NSW Ministry for the Arts; that the local government and shires association conduct a survey to ascertain the state of cinema across NSW; and that a forum be established to discuss the development of a funding program. All of these recommendations were implemented and the progress made since that time has been phenomenal. Jane Cruickshank, the FTO’s Regional Cinema Officer tells me that the organisation has been involved in over 70 cinema projects since the inception of its regional cinema program in 2000, providing advice, publications, and organising regular Flicks in the Sticks forums across the state for communities interested in restoring their local cinema or converting other spaces into screening venues. The program was awarded a prize in the recent Public Sector Awards for Services to Rural NSW.

Jack Ritchie is now the Regional Arts Development Officer for New England where he has seen the founding of 4 local screening venues. The Roxy Theatre in Bingara was the first. Built in 1936 in classic art deco style and operated as a cinema until its closure in 1956, the theatre’s interior has remained largely intact. The local council purchased the building in 1999 with a grant from the NSW government and, with further state and federal funding, the venue was restored and opened by the Premier in May this year. Manager Sandy McNaughton describes the Roxy as a “multi-purpose performing arts venue”, noting that as well as screening contemporary mainstream movies the venue hosts live theatre, theatre courses and special events. This is the way many regional cinemas operate, functioning as a hub for other community activities that are subsidised by movie screenings. As with most of these ventures, all of the Roxy staff are volunteers, with the exception of the manager.

One of the most important long-term effects of the regional cinema revival has been the potential for an increase in local filmmaking, especially among young people. As Jack Ritchie comments: “Because it’s a modern form of communication, and people are becoming more au fait with screen culture, it has created a fair bit of interest in what’s possible…the film schools up here are now getting an incredible response. That’s through TAFE—they didn’t exist out here only a couple of years ago, and now they’re full.” One manifestation of this interest in production has been the North West Film Festival, a new showcase for local talent which kicked off at the Roxy in October this year. 42 films were screened, including many projects produced through local schools and TAFEs.

Similarly, the Bowraville Theatre on the NSW north coast has hosted a number of events featuring local talent since the restored space re-opened in August 2003. Unlike venues in the New England region, Bowraville has had trouble attracting audiences to mainstream screenings, but has had considerable success hosting special events such as the Travelling Sydney Film Festival and the Tropfest tour program. Additionally, a small band of amateur and professional filmmakers residing in the area have formed Verandah Post Films, which has produced 2 works that have already won awards at local festivals: Jacquelin Melilli’s Outside the Square and Rosie Sutherland’s Dear Old Dad. The Bowraville Surf Classic was also initiated in April, intended as an annual showcase of surfing films by NSW filmmakers.

For observers of Australian cinema, this slowly growing stream of films made in regional areas is one of the most interesting aspect of the regional cinema revival. In an era when the cultural and political gap between urban and regional Australia threatens to widen to a gaping chasm, a regional film culture may provide a creative arena in which regional issues can be expressed and stereotypes exploded. In the longer term, it may also provide an influx of talent for the nation’s film industry from outside the urban centres.

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 18

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2004
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