For over thirty years now, the Astor Cinema in St Kilda has been showing classic films. And by “classic” I mean “old”.
The Astor is Melbourne’s last remaining repertory cinema (screening non first-run films) out of close to a dozen or more that flourished back in the days before DVDs or video tapes. Then they were the only way to see old movies: in recent years the Astor’s big hook has been seeing these older films on its massive screen – it’s also Melbourne’s last remaining single screen cinema, and there’s a big difference between seeing a film there and seeing it on the much smaller screens at most multiplex cinemas.
But the Astor has often struggled, with its massive size being both a strength (again, seeing movies on that huge screen is a big draw) and a weakness (it’s not a cheap place to keep up). And then in recent years the constant difficulties that come with being a tenant have increasingly come to the fore: when the building was purchased by a local school that was hailed as providing security for the business (proprietor George Florence) inside, until the school suggested they might want to develop the interior and reduce its use as a cinema. There was a campaign held to Save the Astor; eventually the school sold the building to Ralph Taranto, a businessman with a history of investing in cinema. Again, this development was hailed as providing security for the business, though those in the know suggested there could be a problem with clashing egos further down the line.
There’s a difference between the building known as “the Astor” and the business known as “the Astor”, and it quickly became clear that the two parties had somewhat different visions of the future. So now we have a somewhat strange situation where Florence and the people behind the business that is “the Astor” – who own many of the cinema fittings, the projectors, the screen and the library of old films that are currently shown at the Astor – are being turfed out early next year and so are (quite rightly) talking about “the end of the Astor”. Meanwhile, Taranto’s spokepeople are pointing out (also quite rightly) that he plans to keep the building as a single screen cinema – no multiplex here, and heritage protection means it can’t be turned into a block of flats, though other uses like a concert hall aren’t ruled out – and so “the Astor” as most people think of it will continue to exist.
The sad thing is that it seems that the problem isn’t some wider malaise affecting movie-going in general; the Astor may not have been raking in coin, but it’s believed to have been a growing concern, and it’s not like the building’s owner can easily find someone else with a vast library of old films to show. Rather, it seems to boil down to two people who just can’t work together (arbitration was taking place pretty much from day one, with a recent court case being the trigger for the planned departure), leaving big screen movie-goers the big losers in all this.
Get in while you can; whatever happens next, it’s unlikely the Astor will ever be quite the same.
By Anthony Morris