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Flicks and the city

Catherine Carter

There was always something special about sliding into those worn velvet seats at the Electric Shadows.

The smell of stale popcorn. The previews tempting the restless audience with exotic and eccentric tales. The red and blue theatres glowing like lush little jewel boxes of ruby and sapphire.

Most long-time Canberrans saw their first art-house movie at the Electric Shadows. From its first screening of a Monty Python documentary in 1979 to its last showing of Almodovar’s Volver in 2006, the Electric Shadows was loved for its quirky programming, its edgy vibe, it’s grungy poster-filled walls and avant-garde bookshop.

Remember the Enrico Taglietti-designed Centre Cinema, which closed its doors in 2003, or the Civic Twin, which held on until 2008? Is it a coincidence that the heyday of Civic’s cinema scene coincided with the halcyon days of Garema Place? And is it a coincidence that when cinema buffs turned towards the Dendy on Bunda Street, that the city’s activity did too?

Since the end of the nineteenth century, the fortunes of the cinema and the city have been linked. The location of cinemas, carefully chosen to attract maximum patronage, carved out a cultural space, whether in the heart of the CBD or in the rapidly-expanding suburbs.

Cinemas are a catalyst for economic growth and urban development. They provide one of the few sources of entertainment that everyone can enjoy – whether you’re seven, 17 or 70. As they pull in the crowds, they also support vibrant commerce and diverse businesses.

We’ve seen this since the earliest days of Canberra. Take the tussle for supremacy between Kingston and Manuka. Sir John Sulman, then chair of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee, thought it a mistake to build two business centres in such proximity. Development of Kingston, then called Eastlake, took off quickly as it was closer to the railway station and established residences. But then the Capitol Theatre pulled back the curtains in 1927 – and Manuka became the livelier urban village.

Pundits have been predicting the death of the silver screen since Australia’s first TV broadcast in 1956. Since then, the picture theatre has weathered many storms, from Netflix to the Multiplex (the cinematic equivalent to the big box retail store).

Despite this, Australians still rate the flicks as their favourite cultural venue. According to the most recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 66 per cent of us take a trip to the box office at least once a year. And Canberrans record the highest attendance rates in the country, at 80 per cent.

Today, cinemas can help to sustain and reinvigorate entertainment districts. In an era when it’s easy to live stream from the living room, cinemas are not just an escape. They are an experience.

NewActon’s Palace Electric – which evokes the glory days of the Electric Shadows in its very name – is my current favourite because it’s not just about the scenes on the screen. It’s about the spectacular Nishi staircase, the large neon numbers beckoning you to your seat, the glittering gold prosecco bar tempting you to linger just a little bit longer.

The Palace Electric cinema itself is part and parcel of the NewActon community, attracting a diverse mix of visitors beyond hotel guests and government office workers. The picture palace brings in people at all hours and after hours. Moviegoers create demand for restaurants, cafés and speciality shops that underpin the vibrancy of the place.

There is a reason that large mall owners build cinemas – they are good for business. It’s no coincidence, then, that shopping centre owners around the country are turning back to the tried-and-true cinema to combat online retailing. In the era of instant everything, there’s nothing more enchanting, or egalitarian, than the old-fashioned escapism of the big screen.

So, what is my message to Canberra’s city-shapers? Wake up and smell the popcorn.


Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a creative thinker, Catherine Carter is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now provides specialist business and communication consultancy services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010 and the National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award in 2017. More about the Author