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The sad centenary of the Paramount

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by Lindsay Shelton
Wellington should be celebrating this month’s hundredth anniversary of the Paramount, which is New Zealand’s oldest operating cinema. Instead, the city is allowing the centenary of the Paramount to be marked by its closure. It’s a dismal situation.

The arts and culture capital seems unable and unwilling to save the much-used Courtenay Place venue. Contrarily, the city council has even approved plans to convert it into a hotel or apartments, though no one knew about the decision till “for sale” signs were erected on the building last year. That proposal seems to have come to nothing. But the owners of the building are now promoting a new plan.

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They’ve set a date for the theatre to close next month, and they’re trying to find someone who will lease their building for use as a bar and offices.

A few months ago, film society president Chris Hormann noted the strangeness of losing the Paramount:

“Wellington is widely publicised as the arts and culture capital of New Zealand by our council and [yet] we have a situation where a central city venue used by many arts and culture and community groups is potentially going to be out of commission.”

The Paramount is wellknown as a place for movies, which have been its principal activity (but not the only one) since it opened 100 years ago. It was the first cinema in New Zealand to screen talking pictures. It was the original home of the Wellington Film Festival, whose successor the NZ International Film Festival uses it for 20 days every year. (The Paramount has Wellington’s only 35mm projectors, and the only facilities for screening silent films with an orchestra.) The Wellington Film Society – New Zealand’s largest with over 500 members – screens in the Paramount every Monday.

The main auditorium has also housed many national film festivals – recently China, Japan, Poland and Turkey – as well as screenings of Indian films – Hindi, Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam, Kanadian and Sri Lankan. Not forgetting adventure film festivals – BANFF, NZ Mountain, Reel, Rock and Ocean – and events such as the one-off Black Power Film Festival. The OutTakes gay film festival screened in the Paramount for 18 years.

But the Paramount is not only a home for film events. Community groups use it too – including U3A Wellington City – with 1000 members. Closure of the Paramount means they are being being forced to seek a new home for their twice weekly lectures.

The Abundant Life Church fills the auditorium for its weekly Sunday services. There’ve been full houses for Fly My Pretties, Don McGlashan, Shane Carter, Mel Parsons, Catpower, Lloyd Cole and Henry Rollins. And fund-raising events at discounted rates for Union Aid, wind surfing, Wellington Volunteers, Sing Your Lungs Out Community Trust, Riversdale Surf life saving, Pride Awards Trust, Pacific Islands Church, Netball, Oxfam and Nepalese earthquake relief. School fundraisers too. Plus events during the Arts Festival, the Jazz Festival and the fringe festival, as well as improv theatre while Bats was being renovated. Events in the Paramount have been run by the Royal Society of New Zealand, Massey University and (last April) the Wellington Zoo’s Conservation forum. The Ministry of Culture and Heritage launched Te Ara the encyclopedia of New Zealand in the Paramount.

The popularity with so many organisations is due to the fact that the Paramount’s 430-seat auditorium is the only mid-size multi-use theatre in the central city. The university theatre is a similar size, but it’s difficult to access and difficult to book. Te Papa’s Soundings Theatre has 320 seats, but the national museum is reluctant to accept bookings more than a month in advance. Bigger auditoriums are too expensive. Smaller spaces don’t have the needed capacity.

So the outlook for the many users of the Paramount seems to be grim.

I’ve heard of at least one offer to buy the building, by an organisation that wants to retain the auditorium. But the owners – seemingly oblivious to the fact that their theatre is used by so many people – have rejected the offer.

Instead, the cinema operator’s lease is not being renewed and is to expire at the end of next month. The operator, who has been running the theatre for 15 years, has been told that all the equipment – the seats, the screen, the sound system, the projection equipment – must to be removed. Once that has happened, the theatre will be an unusable empty space.

An ignominious end to a hundred years. And a potential problem for many of its users including the film festival. After reporting record attendances for the last two years, the loss of the Paramount (its second biggest venue after the Embassy) will threaten its ability to offer such an extensive programme for its established audiences next year.

Read also:
What’s happening to the council’s $150m Film Museum building?
In Rome, they’re fighting to save a cinema

16 comments:

  1. Tony Allen, 20. August 2017, 10:07

    It was a very good place.

     
  2. Traveller, 20. August 2017, 11:02

    It was built as a cinema, but the Paramount has always been a multi-purpose venue. In the silent years it had a 12-piece orchestra. For a while in the 1930s there was a Wurlitzer organ. In the 1950s, after the screen had been repositioned, a vaudeville show ran for five weeks and Wellington Repertory started staging live productions. In the mid-60s, Downstage had a great success with “Oh What A Lovely War,” which ran in the Paramount for a month. In the mid 1990s it was the venue for a sold-out political debate which asked “are the arts important for the wellbeing of society?” (Information from David Lascelles’ 1997 book on the Paramount.)

     
  3. Gonzo, 20. August 2017, 18:13

    I’d sooner see the Paramount retained and upgraded than save the Gordon Wilson Flats.

     
  4. Chris Hormann, 20. August 2017, 18:21

    This is a particularly bitter pill to swallow on what is the centenary of the Paramount’s operation as a cinema. It is an iconic part of Wellington’s arts and culture heritage … We accept that the landlords want a return on their investment but we hoped they would be cognisant of the social dividend that a venue such as this can bring to the community and the part that they could play in that. With the confirmation that there is to be no extension to the lease for operation as a cinema, and short of a benefactor riding to the rescue at the eleventh hour, ‘the Film Society’s final screening at the Paramount will be on September 25.

     
  5. Natalie, 20. August 2017, 23:47

    This is so sad. I got married in the Paramount theatre, so it has always had a special place in my heart.

     
  6. syrahnose, 21. August 2017, 0:37

    Here is a building that probably should be saved. Maybe someone should have put a micro-brewery in there a few years ago to make it more financially viable. That’s what the McMinimin Brothers did all over Portland Oregon 20-30 years ago saving half a dozen beautifully sculpted, circus and art deco styled cinemas from the 20s and 30s. To my knowledge these all continue to function as movie houses.

     
  7. Lindsay, 21. August 2017, 9:25

    Syrahnose: we can’t claim the Paramount auditorium has much architectural value (apart perhaps from the ceiling) as it has been remodelled and reshaped over the years. Its importance is based on the fact that it is used by so many different community groups for whom its size and its location are perfect for their various needs. There’s also the issue that the diversity of Courtenay Place will be diminished by the disappearance of a cinema and its patrons, and their replacement by yet another bar.
    Of course, 15 years ago the city council did decide to buy the Embassy – but by that time a private Trust had done most of the work to save and restore the beautiful 1920s building and its imposing auditorium, and the council’s wish was focused on making it ready for the world premiere of the third movie in the LOTR trilogy. The council’s continuing focus is shown by its willingness to spend $150m on a new building to house a film museum (and convention centre) … while having no apparent awareness or concern about the problems that will be faced by so many community groups if and when the Paramount is closed.

     
  8. Matthew O'Reilly, 21. August 2017, 9:29

    The City Council seems to be ignorant of the effect the Paramount’s closure will have on Wellington’s claimed status as the country’s cultural capital. Never mind the clear heritage value indicated by its centenary though this is bad enough, but the fact of the theatre’s seating capacity being the only one of its kind in the city, and the usefulness of this size of auditorium to the cultural life of the capital city should make the council think very hard about it’s commitment to its public. As host city to foreign embassies, a growing number of which contribute to human culture through the important movies they facilitate to our discerning public, surely the council should see a duty of care to the larger stage of world culture that such contributions by such as Alliance Francaise and the Goethe Institute and others make. The Paramount’s auditorium size is just about spot on for these invaluable cinematic gifts to world culture. Go on Justin, show us your cultural mettle! Do something about this.

     
  9. Chris Tse, 21. August 2017, 11:26

    Wellington and the NZIFF won’t be the same without The Paramount. This will be a huge loss to our city and arts scene. [via twitter]

     
  10. KB, 21. August 2017, 12:21

    Someone start a crowdfunding campaign – lets see if people will put their money where there mouth is. Could be a successful endeavour. Even the publicity generated from an unsuccessful crowdfunding campaign might be enough to rattle loose a generous benefactor.

     
  11. Curtis Nixon, 21. August 2017, 13:49

    Gareth Morgan should buy the Paramovnt to preserve it as a movie theatre

     
  12. Peter G, 21. August 2017, 15:55

    That’s an idea Curtis. Perhaps we could promise to bring back “Kedi” to screen for him or perhaps, not to screen it, ever!

     
  13. David Bond, 21. August 2017, 19:51

    Things like the Paramount (and the trolleybuses) help to make Wellington the world’s “coolest little capital”.
    Why this drive to make it sterile and boring just like anywhere else?

     
  14. Marion Leader, 21. August 2017, 21:25

    Matthew, it’s hopeless dealing with the WCC when it handed out the fatal resource consent on the Paramount as though there was no tomorrow. And they are meant to be Labour!

     
  15. Jaypot, 21. August 2017, 23:03

    My guess is the WCC is prioritising the Town Hall for its earthquake strengthening project. Maybe it’s an either or situation. Very sad, but IF positivity can bring money from each and every and all the groups that use the Paramount together to buy it, the Paraamount could be saved with joint ownership (commune style).To lose that cinema theatre will be a huge loss. Isn’t Peter Jackson or any of the film industry Wellington people interested in saving it? A hundred years of cinema-theatre should mean celebrated, not closure. [The owners of the building are reported to be asking $6million for the Paramount – a price which none of the interested buyers is prepared to pay. The cinema operators were interested in keeping the theatre open, but they couldn’t reach agreement with the owners on an affordable new lease.]

     
  16. Elaine Hampton, 22. August 2017, 11:06

    I’d prefer they save the Paramount than either the Wilson Flats or the Jackson Film Museum, which I am told by ‘those in the know’ might in the end morph into a casino. For shame on the Council – Officers and Mayor.

     

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