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May 29, 2014

At the movies

Amid rumoured plans to re-open the once grand but now empty Regent Theatre, CityMag takes a step back in time to look at the history of cinema in the city and what it would take to make the CBD’s silver screens shine again.

  • Pictures: Courtesy of the State Library of South Australia and Dylan Walker

If you know the kind of people who are inclined to scale buildings and pop through old, broken windows late at night, you hear the occasional story of disused theatre spaces haunting Adelaide’s outer corners.

Apparently there’s one in the Central Markets precinct – although CityMag has been unable to confirm the veracity of this tale. If it’s true though, this would most likely be The Empire – a small venue originally built in 1909 as a live performance space that quickly morphed into a cinema as the popularity of
film grew.

The Empire was just one of many CBD theatres operating in the golden age of Adelaide cinema. Dylan Walker, cinema historian, author and Flinders University academic, estimates that in the ’30s and ’40s there would have been 18,500 cinema seats spread across city venues compared to an estimate of less than 2,000 seats in today’s operational venues – Palace Nova and Mercury Cinema.

Most of the multitudinous old venues have since been converted to office space, or made into hotels, or demolished. But a precious few – like the Regent Theatre – stand abandoned, holding onto their grand past, and eerily empty.

The demise of CBD cinema was heralded by several modern inventions and habits. Some of these factors – like television’s 1959 arrival in SA and the spread of VHS – are well documented, but others are specific to city cinemas and less widely understood.

A ticket for the Regent Theatre’s final screening in 2004

A ticket for the Regent Theatre’s final screening in 2004

“One of the issues of cinemas leaving the city is to do with parking,” says Dylan. “You think about Marion, Colonnades, Arndale – they all have parking. Parking is the issue for people now, they always think parking is paired with cinemas.

“The other thing too, is that it’s expensive real estate. As you know, places like Rundle Street have high rent – fancy having a cinema there.”

Another contributing issue is the rapid development of technologies, which some cinemas just can’t afford to invest in. This has been the case practically since the start of cinema. In 1929, when sound was first introduced into film, a swathe of Adelaide cinemas that couldn’t afford to install sound gear were shut down. Today, Dylan says we see the same issues on a much more advanced techno-
logical scale.

“More recently, we saw the Lockleys (Windsor Cinema) close down because they couldn’t afford the modern tech­nology,” he says.

Against all these problems, it is undoubtedly an uphill battle for the city cinema. Dylan identifies revenue from film festival audiences and specialist programs such as The Mercury’s Seniors on Screen as key to the operations of the two surviving venues.

But hope is not altogether lost for Adelaide’s abandoned cinema spaces. As the Ginos Group – owner of the Regent Arcade and Regent Theatre – considers reopening that space, Flinders Uni­versity Associate Professor in Screen and Media and Adelaide Film Festival programmer Mike Walsh, says there are some ways city-based cinema might be revived.

Most of the options though, are likely to be in the quite distant future and may require significant reworking of existing cinema spaces.

“There’s always possibilities for cinemas to come and go,” Mike says. “Cinemas are one of those things that can have a very strong flow on to related things around them.”

“The conventional wisdom is that single screen cinemas are a thing of the past. For cinemas to survive they need to be part of multi screen complexes.

“Adelaide doesn’t seem to have the critical mass for those to survive in the CBD at the moment. The State Government’s plan to revitalise the city centre – if that’s successful then encouraging one of the commercial operators to build a multi-screen complex might be a great addition to the city.”

The auditorium of the Regent Theatre in 1936

The auditorium of the Regent Theatre in 1936

Even with the population density and public transport fluency that would accompany a freshly invigorated city centre, any future Adelaide CBD cinema manager might have to think laterally about their programming choices, says Mike.

“If I look to Melbourne and I see something like Melbourne Central – it’s strongly geared around an international student population that lives there,” he says. “Instead of banishing Chinese films out to Tea Tree Plaza as is the current case we may well see films being programmed and targeted at this audience in the city.”


Dylan and Mike both contribute to the AusCinemas project – a website that catalogues Adelaide’s film exhibition history. Cinema buffs might enjoy a visit to 

Other programming models that have proved successful interstate and internationally include coupling cinemas with other attractions such as high-end food and drink, screening of live events like opera performances and building flexi­bility into cinema spaces so they can also be used for business meetings, comm­unity events and live performance.

A little lateral thinking might help recapture Adelaide’s former love affair with cinema, and might even breathe life back into some of our formerly grand buildings that currently stand forlorn and empty.

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