by Lindsay Shelton
There’s been consternation this week as local groups learnt that the operators of the 100-year-old Paramount cinema are not renewing their lease, and the owners of the building want to destroy the auditorium.
They’ve already tried – before Christmas, they advertised that the building was for sale to be converted into a hotel. There were no takers.
Now they’re trying again, with an advertisement seeking buyers to convert it into offices – a plan which would destroy a venue which is used by so many Wellington groups.
The Wellington Film Festival was established in the Paramount back in 1972 – and the festival depends on using the cinema for twenty days every year, bringing thousands of people into Courtenay Place. The film society screens movies every Monday evening. Indian films are screened regularly.
But the auditorium is used for much more than film screenings. The University of the Third Age (with 1000 members) presents lectures twice a week. A church group fills the seats every Sunday morning. The Royal Society, Massey University, and LitCrawl have booked the venue. And the list of national groups who have used the Paramount includes Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French, Brazilian, German, South African, and Nigerian.
The auditorium is also used for music (Fly My Pretties, Don McGlashan, the Jazz Festival) and for city events such as the Zoo’s Conservation Symposium next week. Even the city council has used it, as an ideal space to launch its annual report.
As Chris Hormann of the film society has pointed out – it’s the only mid-size (400-seat) venue in central Wellington.
Te Papa’s Soundings Theatre has 320 seats, but is not readily available for community use, as it doesn’t have its own access separate from the museum’s main foyer (which is often rented-out for large events.) The University Memorial Theatre has 400 seats, but it’s not in the city centre and access is even more difficult.
The City Gallery’s Adam Auditorium seats only 134 people. The similarly small theatre at the National Library hasn’t been reopened since the building was refurbished.
The liveliness of Courtenay Place would be negatively impacted if the Paramount’s three auditoriums were replaced by bedrooms or offices. But this seems to have been disregarded by the council, which last June gave resource consent for the theatre to be redeveloped as a four-star serviced hotel accommodating up to 46 guests. If the new plans for office redevelopment are submitted, the council will have a second chance to reconsider city priorities. It should not allow the destruction of a unique public venue.
Mayor Justin Lester showed admirable leadership this week when he announced specific plans to strengthen and reopen the Town Hall (previous councils had left it closed since 2013). The Paramount gives him an equally complex challenge. No one would expect the council to buy the Paramount (though it did buy the nearby Embassy Theatre from the trust that was restoring it.) The mayor’s responsibility as the city’s cultural leader is to ensure that any new owner is committed to retaining the auditorium, and not gutting it to create bedrooms or offices.
As I wrote last November: Character. Diversity. History. Popular culture and entertainment. All would be lost if the Paramount is allowed to disappear. Over to you, Mayor Lester.