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History of the Regent Theatre: 2002-2007

By Allan Webb, April 2007. Prev

There are periods of the year when product is in short supply (not enough films) and I have to try to fill all the screens by placing in a festival or with films that normally would not screen here.

Once again, at the end of 2002 there was a gap. I could get two films using a digital projector. One was a delightful little Australian show called Dalkeith, the name of a dog who was bought by the oldies at a home. It was produced by John Chase who did work on many films such as Mad Max, Lion of the Desert, French Lieutenant’s Woman and Alvin Purple. The other was a film that had been running in Christchurch for ages called Gloomy Sunday. Both of these films were to screen before Hamilton. I purchased a projector for over $25k and both screened in Cinema 3 for two months.

Mark Croft of the Academy Cinema in Auckland had recently built a 16-seater for digital presentation and we had a section of the foyer that was underutilised. I decided that, as we had the projector, I may as well build a small theatre to use it in. My biggest worry was that it didn’t come across as being too small. I designed the ceiling to be art deco, basing it on the Central Theatre in Papatoetoe, with a wall design the same as Cinema One in Queen Street. The budget blew out of all proportion and $250,000k later, we had the Lanzana, an 18-seater, opening it for Boxing Day, 2003. Unfortunately, being one of the early digital cinemas, there were several aspects that did not really come up to the standard that I desired. The seating was excellent and came from Fagaleo in Brisbane at $600 each. The air-conditioning was top of the range but the picture could be improved with new equipment and this was at a cost of over another $25k. I also got two very expensive players and a Lumagen which improved picture quality and a Felston to help with any out-of-sync talking. Fred Jonathan put in a new sound system. Later, I purchased another digital projector at a cost of over 40k but this was overkill for that sized theatre. So another projector and a new Lumagen were installed for Christmas/New year 2006/2007. Fred also programmed and installed a semi-automation unit called a Pixi. The picture quality and sound were extremely good, so the whole experience in that Theatre was of a very high level. To begin with, we had very few titles to screen and were struggling to fill the schedule and had to repeat both Dalkeith and Gloomy Sunday but gradually more and more films were offered day-and-date and we ended up with an over supply of titles.

During my time here, I had quite a number of difficulties with tenants. I liked to leave them alone and expected them to adhere to the conditions of the lease and to try to improve their businesses by making them attractive to their customers. Unfortunately, this is not a land of utopia and my experience leaves me to believe that a good landlord has no protection from poor tenants and a lease is for them only. They can break the terms that they have agreed to but the landlord can’t. By the end of 2003, the last two tenants had vacated their shops and after investigating my options, I decided to pull down the dividing wall and make one large shop. A new manager’s office, staff room, storeroom and toilet were installed, the entire shop was rejuvenated, painted and new carpet laid. The frontage was altered and the results, $50k later, were gratifying. But the Real Estate agent in charge of leasing it could not find a suitable tenant. They all seem to expect further demands should be met and a lowering of the rent, which was less than valuation and some were not prepared to take on a long-term lease. We already had shops of similar character as the ones that wanted the shop and the references were not solid. One said they wanted air-conditioning installed as well as the frontage being altered. Another said they would put in shelving that would leave holes in the walls and would only stay for twelve months. Others said the rent was too dear and so on.

Allan Webb

After twelve months, I decided to go back to my original plan and that was to build another cinema. Once again everyone said it was impossible, but plans were drawn and building started after the Christmas school holidays in 2005. It took a lot longer to build than expected (opening 19th May with The Interpreter and Sahara) and the budget was blown out again going to a third of a million dollars. I wanted it to be different to anything else you would see and a lot of thought was given to sound proofing, décor and seating, sight lines, picture and sound. The result was quite splendid and after a delay, the Empress Theatre was opened.

The wall and ceiling plates became a feature having been restored by John Metcalfe, originally coming from the ceiling of the foyer of the Empress theatre in Te Kuiti, which had recently been demolished (built in 1912). They were in a very sad state and looked unimpressive but with careful work, they ended up rather stunning. The picture, masking and draw curtain presented challenges. To get the biggest picture, we had to have moveable masking for both Wide-Screen and Cinemascope so that it moved up and down as well as sideways. The material for the curtain was chosen and paid for but on the eve of having to be made and installed, we were told that it was no longer available. We went to plan B only to find that the material offered was no longer available. So, to plan C and a three shaded curtain, but there would be a further delay as one of the shades was out-of-stock. I decided to wait and have no curtain until I could have one I was satisfied with and I am pleased I did so as the result is quite amazing as well as unique, being made of a shimmering velvet with colours from gold through to brown.

Cinema 5: The Empress Theatre

Towards the end of 2006, we had the annual problem of insufficient films to keep all of the screens full. As the latest digital projector in the Lanzana Theatre was more for use in a bigger auditorium, I asked Fred to arrange a demonstration in the Empress Theatre. We were all flabbergasted at the screen results, which were unbelievably good. So I asked him to temporarily install it in this Theatre so we could screen some of the titles that were being offered that we didn’t have room for in the 18-seater. This was done and in actual fact, there was a period of two weeks when no 35mm film screened at all and many weeks they were shared in both theatres. We were doing better in that Theatre than any of the others. At last, the digital projectors were starting to earn their keep. The idea was to return that projector back to the Lanzana, but I knew we were going to be offered more films in digital than 35mm in February of 2007 and we ended up with a waiting list, so I left that projector there and purchased another for the Lanzana as mentioned above.

With the digital installation, we have had access to some of the very best of World Cinema with day and date releases. In the past, we had to wait for up to five months for a 35mm print to be available and by then, no one was interested in them. Films such as Mrs. Henderson Presents, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, Ladies In Lavender, My House In Umbria and The Queen screened in Te Awamutu at the same time as the major centres but without digital presentation these titles would have been before they could be shown. Also, many specialised titles have been played whereas, in the past, they would never be played here. Some outstanding titles can be played in the small Theatre because there is no print cost. New prints of limited release titles can be upwards of 6k and naturally, Te Awamutu cannot justify this amount when the takings could be a few hundred dollars. The audience has grown for this type of entertainment and some superb films from different countries have been screened. Some of the Continental films are quite different from the mainstream-commercial titles, in that they have different actors, scenery, portrayals, plots and endings and are really quite magic to watch while others are very impressionable and stay with you forever. Some of my favourite films are in this category such as Shadows of Time, Vitus, Downfall, Zelary, Ruby and Quentin, On a Clear Day, Tsotsi, As It Is In Heaven, Joy Noel, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Motorcycle Diaries, Plots With a View, Station Agent, Pieces of April, Monsieur Batignole, Japanese Story, Wah Wah, Orchestra Seats, Copying Beethoven and Elephant as well as many others. These films are so varied and in some cases, quite unique and excellent in their own way, providing a wide range of quality entertainment.

This year, we hope to install a system especially made for cinemas, that enables the film companies to supply the films which can be loaded onto a hard drive rather than be supplied with a DVD and this will mean there can be no damage to discs and the image should be improved. This will probably cost about 14k.

The costs incurred to bring digital are very high because the technology is changing so rapidly and equipment becomes obsolete overnight. This is what is known as e-cinema but in the future, all films will be presented digitally with very high costs for equipment in larger auditoriums and that is what is known as d-cinema.

For several years, I have found the running of the Theatre has been very time consuming and physically exhausting and it has worried me because I have to consider what the future will be as I slow down. I have put the Theatre on the market on a couple of occasions to no response and have offered the lease to some people with an interest in the Theatre industry.

In November, 2004, a partnership was formed with myself and two young ladies, April Murray and Jenny Glaspey, by which the three of us would operate the business with the intention that I would gradually leave the Theatre altogether. It was working well in the beginning but Jenny had an unexpected baby, which she decided to adopt out. However, after finding an adoptee, she changed her mind and decided to keep ‘Baby’. This put terrific strains on me as her performance deteriorated and the new arrangement started to cost us all a lot of money. After the first twelve months period the agreement was terminated and I had to take over by myself once again and it took me almost a year to pay off the partnership losses. April stayed for six months and became very helpful in the day-to-day operation of the Theatre and then her responsibilities were placed on me once again. It was a very stressful time for me and it took a many months to get back to the status quo.

On March 12th, 2007, the Theatre will be 75 years old. To celebrate this, we have been lucky enough to secure the NZ Premier of Miss Potter, which will screen for four sessions on March 13th. We will have a different guest speaker for each of the sessions. The reason why we were unable to have the celebration on the actual day is that the industry people are tied up on Mondays with all the film changes, schedules and reports that have to be processed. In actual fact, I did not think we would live to 75 years but we did.

For any Theatre to run movies continuously for 75 years without any form of subsidy is an achievement in itself and I am proud to have be apart of the activities.

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