'End of an era': Canberra's oldest cinema turns back into lecture hall
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'End of an era': Canberra's oldest cinema turns back into lecture hall

It's a lecture hall by day, and Canberra's oldest cinema by night.

But at the end of the month, the lights will go down at the Australian National University's Coombs Theatre for its very last film screening.

ANU film group vice president Andrew Wellington and president Adrian Ma.

ANU film group vice president Andrew Wellington and president Adrian Ma.Credit:Dion Georgopoulos

The ANU Film Group, which has been showing movies in the hall since 1968, will move to a new 300-seat cinema when it opens next year as part of the university's multi-million dollar redevelopment of Union Court.

What began as a few movies in a lecture hall has grown into Australia's largest film society. Putting on four films a week, the group now boasts about 1200 members, most of whom aren't even students.

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As the group packs up more than 50 years of history, president Adrian Ma said the relocation was bittersweet. Some long-time members, which include Canberra film identity Andrew Pike, had been lining up outside the theatre for the past 40 years, or met their spouses at screenings, he said.

ANU film group president Adrian Ma looking at some of the old film.

ANU film group president Adrian Ma looking at some of the old film.Credit:Dion Georgopoulos

The old 16mm film projector would be lugged around by students after class, starting with a physics lecture hall in 1966 before Coombs became the locale of choice. (Membership cards cost just $1 back then).

That gear, purchased with the help of the university along with the "upgrade" of a 35mm projector, would now be lost in the move, Mr Ma said.

"The new space [will just run] digital," he said. "It's a shame, nowhere really shows that old film now, just the archives.

"There used to be two projectors that had to be switched over every 20 minutes, so you'd always get those stories of the projectionist falling asleep and the screen going black."

While Mr Ma expects the group might also lose some regulars in the move, he said he anticipated a boost in new memberships as well, with the new cinema to be housed directly below student residencies in the ANU's new Kambri cultural precinct.

Even better, the seats will actually be comfortable.

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"We've been asking the ANU for years if we could replace the seats and make them comfier, but they always said no, they didn't want people falling asleep in lectures," Mr Ma said.

While the arrival of home video in the 80s brought the group dangerously close to collapse, Mr Ma said it had survived the introduction of DVDs and now, remarkably in the era of Netflix and Youtube, membership had only shrunk down a little since its heyday in the early 2000s.

Arthur Cantrill and Andrew Pike in a projection booth at the ANU's Coombs Theatre in 1969.

Arthur Cantrill and Andrew Pike in a projection booth at the ANU's Coombs Theatre in 1969.Credit:ANU Archives

He joined the group himself in his first week at ANU, tagging along to a screening expecting to find a TV and a pirated copy of Casino Royale.

Instead he walked into a "full cinema set-up", which was later improved again with the purchase of a $94,000 digital projector and server in 2014.

"It's just like the real thing but in many ways it's more exciting, there's something about the audience, you can feel it," he said.

"People cheer, they applaud or they sniffle. It's not something I've experienced too often at commercial cinemas."

The group is run by volunteers trained to use the projectors, but professionals are brought in to run the sessions each week.

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While old classics such as Casablanca and Some Like it Hot are among the most popular screenings so far, Mr Ma said the 2018 release Ladies in Black will air for the final session at Coombs on November 25th during a special farewell event.

"That film's set back so it still feels fittingly nostalgic," he said.

"It's the end of an era but we're so grateful to the university for building us a new home."

Once the screenings wrap, an ANU spokeswoman confirmed the old Coombs theatre will continue its usual life as one of the university's busier lecture halls.

Sherryn Groch is a reporter for The Canberra Times, with a special interest in education and social affairs

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