A Note From The President of FOTA

It is not a rumour that The Astor will close. The Astor Theatre is the business which is inside the building which St Michael’s owns. St Michael’s does not have, and never has had, anything to do with the running of The Astor Theatre. When St Michael’s bought the building The Astor had a lease with a five by five year option. Simon Gipson has worded his statements to make it sound like they very graciously extended the lease to 2015. In fact, the reason there is a lease until 2015 is because George Florence, who owns The Astor Theatre, exercised his final five year option in 2010. George Florence and Friends of The Astor had hoped that St Michael’s plan was that the stage would be renovated to accommodate school plays which could be included in The Astor programme for the four weeks of the year that they are on, that the school would use it for assemblies and educational activities during the day, and The Astor could continue on as a cinema in the evening and on weekends.

Mind you, I always wondered about the plan to adapt the stage. The building is built to house a cinema. It has no dressing rooms, no wings, no fly towers. To me, it seems like a stupid expense to adapt that stage when you could probably build a new purpose built performing arts centre for less cost. Sadly, it has become quite apparent over the years that the school has no intention of allowing The Astor Theatre to continue operating in that building. The Preliminary vision which they put together in 2011 makes that quite clear. Simon Gipson has made various statements about film being included as an important part of a new, renovated building, but has made no commitment as to how this will happen. I ask you to consider this – if the school plans to project film for only a few weeks of the year why would they go to the expense of making certain it can happen in the main auditorium? To do so will mean they will have to build a fly tower for the screen and set aside room in the bio box for two film projectors and at least two digital projectors. That would be insanity. Furthermore the architects who have looked at the building have said that the auditorium will have raked seating. The visioning statement also posits this. Raked seating is suitable for a performing arts venue. It is not suitable for a cinema. The reason St Michael’s is able to say that we are spreading rumours and what we say is untrue is simply because they make broad brush statements and claims constantly and never commit themselves to anything. It has been this way with them for years. Our campaign didn’t come from nowhere. We have tried to speak with them, we have had meetings.

A couple o f years ago the board came on a tour of the theatre. I suggested at that tour that the board set up a special sub-committee to liaise with us. They couldn’t have shown less interest. No sub-committee has ever been set up and no-one from the board has ever tried to contact us. The last meeting we had set up last year to talk with Simon Gipson was cancelled by St Michael’s on the morning of the meeting. We believe that the school, quite simply, will not run anything like The Astor as it is now. They may show films in some small purpose built cinema within the whole complex. And they won’t show film, they’ll have to show digital because there is no way they will be able to keep a trained projectionist on staff, let alone pay the cost of keeping a film projector running for a few weeks a year. No-one they employ will have the expertise that George and his staff have. They will be running a multi-purpose arts centre and they will undoubtedly think that running a few classic movies in a small cinema a few weeks of the year will be adequate. I don’t know why people think running something like the Astor is just a matter of getting all the movies you like together and inviting a few mates to pay to watch them. It is a highly skilled business, and it is one that the managers of a multi-purpose performing arts centre will have no idea about at all. It’s like someone trying to tell you that they could run your business perfectly well as part of an agency that included booking services for modelling, acting, performing animals and escorts.

We could, of course, take Simon’s word that everything will be hunky dory, despite the fact that on the other hand he keeps saying the school actually has no plans at all at the moment. It would certainly make for an easier life to do that. But if we do, and the doors to The Astor close in 2015, one thing is for certain – we will never, ever get it back again. If The Astor closes Melbourne will lose its last picture palace, one of the last ones operating in the world, and that will be it. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take. It’s not a risk that anyone who loves The Astor is willing to take.

A response written by Vanda Hamilton for the Friends of the Astor Association.

Show your support by signing the online petition at: change.org/astor

What Does It All Mean?

It’s sure been an interesting week online with regard to all things “Astor” and, in response to the very many questions appearing on facebook, twitter and elsewhere, we thought we ought to clear up a few points that seem to be causing confusion. So here it is, as we see it, in simple points:

A Brief History Lesson

In 2007, the freehold for the building at 1-9 Chapel St, St Kilda was for sale. St Michael’s Grammar School purchased the building at auction for $3.8 million dollars. With the purchase for SMGS (landlord) came an existing lease until 2015 for the the current major tenant, The Astor Theatre. The building was Heritage Vic listed when St Michael’s bought it  – and we already had a lease in operation. So no matter who owned it, we were always going to be here until May 2015.  No developers were interested because of the Heritage Listing and our lease which is why there was only one bid at auction. The Friends of the Astor Association Inc did not exist until 2010 which is why they did not bid at auction (it’s difficult to do things when you don’t yet exist).

Unfortunately, the media and estate agent were calling it the sale of The Astor Theatre, but “The Astor” is an entity that was not for sale. So rather than ‘Save the Astor’ in 2007, St Michael become the building’s new landlord. Much like when you privately rent a property, the landlord is the person you pay monthly rent to and just because they own (for example) ’10 Happy Lane’ doesn’t necessarily mean they own, run, understand, or have anything to do with the “home” existing inside of it.  If you replace ’10 Happy Lane’ with ’1-9 Chapel Street’, and “home” with “Astor Theatre”, you see clearly the current existing relationship, one of landlord/tenant.

The Astor Theatre

This is the point with the most – and most dangerous – element of confusion; “The Astor Theatre”, “Astor Theatre”, “The Astor”, all refer to the entity currently in operation inside the building at 1-9 Chapel St, St Kilda. Furthermore, it is a trademark belonging to Chapel Theatres Pty Ltd, owned and operated by George Florence, Proprietor of The Astor Theatre as you know it, since 1982. The school have been asked to please not use the word ‘Astor’ when referring to the building as it creates confusion.

Simon Gipson, Head of School at SMGS, commented, that ‘The Astor’ will continue to show films, but this could only be true if George were to be given another lease or if the freehold was sold to someone (i.e. FOTA) who would ensure The Astor could stay. So even though the assurance is that 1-9 Chapel Street will in future show films, The Astor will not.

The school have said they will be in consultation with the broader community. Good news for everyone is that the community includes a great group of people called The Friends of the Astor who are actually offering assistance with community consultation. And so far the community are speaking up loud and clear in favour of The Astor Theatre, which is – everyone all together now – “the entity inside the building”, owned and run by George Florence.

Friends of the Astor

The Friends of the Astor Association Inc is a distinct and separate body from The Astor Theatre. It’s a not for profit incorporated body that aims to become a not-for-profit trust and was founded by a group of concerned individuals within the community who are passionate about The Astor Theatre. Their aims are to preserve and protect the Astor. Their campaign comes from a concern for the future of the Astor. Their intent is not cyber bullying, far from it, they are interested in opening up the dialogue about the future of the Astor and are calling on SMGS to be good corporate citizens, to see that thousands of people out there want the Astor Theatre to exist, in its current incarnation, for future generations to experience.

Too Early to Speculate

It has been stated by the school that it is too early to speculate on the long-term uses for The Astor (one more timethe entity inside the building) but their Preliminary vision, plus the architects who visited the building with tape measures, suggest there has already been at least some consideration for what the future may hold for “The Astor”. And as a entity, “The Astor” must take the landlord’s intended long-term use of the building into consideration: for example, The Astor has recently installed state of the art digital projection and we might be considering further technical additions/upgrades, but it’s difficult to know what to invest in if we don’t know whether or not our intended improvements have a limited time-frame of two and a half years – the time-frame we realistically have left to trade.

Moving house from a small flat with few belongings may only take a couple of days to pack up and move but moving out of a more than thirty year tenancy will take a lot longer. With that in mind, with things as they currently stand, we will close in late 2014 to give us time to take with us everything that belongs to the The Astor including, but not limited to; a cooling/heating system, courtyard full of plants, popcorn machine, film projectors, 4K digital projector, amplifiers, sound rack and sound system, as well as our iconic carpet and a much loved Astor cat. As such, there will be another seven Astor Theatre calendars. And if there are only seven calendars left and with, for example, the 70mm film print of 2001: A Space Odyssey belonging to George Florence, one thing we might like to consider is how many more times we will screen it on the Astor’s SuperScreen before that print is never seen theatrically again. Certainly without the Astor, without George, the building can’t screen it.

The Library

There’s also been some confusion about the library of films The Astor have access to. Some titles, such as Casablanca, that we regularly screen, belong to Chapel Distribution Pty Ltd, a company, though co-founded by George Florence, that is again distinct from “The Astor Theatre”. These films would continue to screen at a number of cinemas in Australia and New Zealand but of course would not screen in the building that houses the Astor Theatre without The Astor in operation.

The Future

Whether or not the people currently operating the business of the Astor wish to stay is not really what’s at stake here, what the concern is, is what the public want, and what might happen to what the public can access. The Friends of the Astor Association is an independent body who could ensure the aims and intentions of The Astor continue once the business is handed over to them as a not-for-profit trust, ensuring The Astor exists, not as a private business but as an entity open to the public. This is something the current model of The Astor strongly supports.

It would be an incredible loss if future generations could not put up an Astor Calendar on their toilet door and come see 70mm film prints of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. If the Astor doesn’t stay inside the building then no one in Australia will see those films in those formats again. No one is saying that the school wouldn’t ever show a film again – as Simon Gipson, Head of School has stated, it will do so for perhaps ten weeks of the year. But will you be able to see It’s A Wonderful Life every Christmas Eve and then come back on Boxing Day for the Monty Python double? Will the Astor cat greet you in the foyer? Will you ever see the Astor logo on the big screen again as you take a bite into your Astor Choc Ice?

The Astor is so much more than just a venue and removing it from the building would be like removing its soul. The Astor isn’t bricks and mortar, it’s ethereal and it only exists today because the collective experiences of the community continue to feed its soul. If it’s gone then you will still have a building, and you will probably still be able to see films there, but do you want to enter the auditorium having purchased a scarf from the uniform shop instead of an Astor Choc Ice?

For more information please visit fota.net.au and sign the petition at change.org/astor

Written by Tara Judah, PA to the Proprietor at the Astor Theatre, for the Astor Theatre.

The Astor Theatre 2021: A Vision, Or, Melbourne’s Worst Nightmare?

For everyone who has ever walked through the front doors here at The Astor Theatre, and in doing so, felt something special, the building of anticipation as you ascend up the stairs, and if you have ever had the pleasure of experiencing a film inside the Astor’s auditorium then you will know what there is here to love and to defend. PROTECT THE ASTOR NOW.

You might have seen our online petition at change.org, please sign and circulate, and read the releases below as the events unfold…

16.05.12 St Michael’s Grammar School’s response FOTA’s online petition request: Media_Release_16May12_-_Astor_Building

17.05.12 FOTA’s media release: Media release_Protect The Astor_17May2012_corrected launch date

 

From St Michael’s Grammar School – “A Preliminary Vision”: Preliminary vision

New Astor Calendar

Whenever we put together an Astor calendar we receive an influx of comments, feedback and suggestions so we thought this would be a great opportunity to tell you in a little more depth about how and why we program the way we do.

Since 1982 George Florence (Proprietor) has conceived of and developed the unique style of repertory programming the Astor is known for. And whilst in an idyllic world the process would be as free and wonderful as choosing two quality films that compliment one another – be it by theme, director, stars, genre, tone, etc – there are a multitude of factors that restrict the options available to us, which is why we find you sometimes asking why we put Labyrinth with Killer Klowns from Outer Space and why John Carter is a single session rather than a double feature.

The primary concern for double features is that both films must come from the same distributor – this is due to Box Office Returns; a percentage of all ticket sales go back to the distributor.

The next concern is available theatrical rights. Just because a film exists, and indeed, even if it has a Home Entertainment release, doesn’t necessarily mean that there are valid theatrical screening rights. All films shown here must have valid theatrical screening rights and even though in some cases we might have shown a film in the past, doesn’t necessarily mean that the film will always be available to screen. Bladerunner is one example where, following our season a couple of years ago now, the theatrical rights have since expired. Conversely, Dirty Dancing and The Princess Bride are films where the rights had lapsed but have recently been renewed, and so we are once again able to screen them.

Then there is the issue of available film formats. Prior to June last year we were only able to screen films with available 35mm or 70mm film prints. And even though we are and will always be committed to both screening and protecting film prints, it is certainly true that since installing our 4K digital projection plant, opportunities to screen many previously unavailable cult and classic titles have now been made available to us. Certainly we could not have held our most recent re-release seasons of Taxi Driver, Dr Strangelove and Labyrinth if it weren’t for new digital restored and remastered DCPs being made.

 

The same is true of our upcoming major season exclusive Australian 2K digital re-release of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Whilst there were once perfectly good quality film prints available of all three Indiana Jones films – Temple of Doom in 70mm in fact – they were junked many years ago and as such, were until now, absent from the big screen. We very much hope we will see Raiders followed up later in 2012 and into 2013 with re-releases of The Temple of Doom & The Last Crusade. Hopefully one day we will be able to present them to you as a trilogy, as we have done recently with The Lord of the Rings and Back to the Future.

There are also certain restrictions for us as a repertory cinema with regard to release dates and the time periods after which we are allowed to screen the films. Usually new release titles will screen here 5-8 weeks after their initial release, with the earliest we are able to screen a new title being 4 weeks with some distributors.

There are also often restrictions placed upon which new titles can be paired with which other new titles and much of this is at the distributors’ discretion.

So, despite our efforts to avoid odd pairings and really weird double bills, we do sometimes end up with things like Safe and Cafe de Flore on the calendar. An example of a double feature that was originally intended to be Silent Souls and Cafe de Flore, but unfortunately the release date for Silent Souls was pushed back which meant we couldn’t include it on this calendar. Still wanting to screen Cafe de Flore, we looked at the next most seemingly interesting to an Astor audience title available. In other instances, with films like A Separation, we decide that it might just be better to let the film screen as a single session rather than a really weird double. Please also bear in mind that as we program for three-month blocks in advance, it isn’t always possible for us to have personally seen the films prior to putting them on the program. If it were, we might not have shown The Darkest Hour or Albert Nobbs on our last calendar.

But beyond what we think are quality films and what films we might like to support there is unfortunately commercial viability to take into account. Sure, I’d love to see a season of experimental films including Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage on our SuperScreen but the reality is that almost no one would turn up to see them – as our John Waters mini retrospective rather clearly indicated.

As we are presently still a commercial entity and without any funding currently available to us, we do have to give some consideration to making enough money to keep the doors open. And whilst our aims and intentions are to provide a unique cinema-going experience rather than to “make money” we do have to consider whether or not a film is likely to have an audience or 30 or 300 people attend. There is of course always a balance and sometimes we will persist with a certain title because of its merit and indeed we have again programmed The Art of Flight despite it not necessarily being a film that attracts several hundred viewers and certainly the session on our last calendar was decent but not staggering. The reason we are screening it again however is because it is one of the best quality digital presentations we have ever screened. The 2K is incredibly sharp and the cinematography quite impressive – something we strongly believe deserves to be seen on the big screen.

There are also some films that we screen regularly due to the film prints being very rare, these include; Hamlet in 70mm, Baraka in 70mm, Apocalypse Now Redux in 35mm and Grindhouse in 35mm. I’m sure many of you already know the story of Hamlet, but if not – it is a great example of why the Astor is important not only as a cinema but also in the continued preservation and exhibition of rare film prints. Following a strong release season in 1996 Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet has screened on every single Astor Calendar since. Earmarked for junking (the destroying of a film print), George contacted Kenneth Branagh and notified him that the rare 70mm print was about to be destroyed, but that we were very interested in continuing to screen it. Kenneth Branagh then directed the distributor to hand over the film print to us so that it can continue to be seen as intended. Similarly, with the hope that the distributors will not junk films we repeatedly book, we make sure rare film prints continue to screen at the Astor so that they won’t be lost to film history and so that future generations can continue to discover them on the big screen.

We are also very lucky here at the Astor to have someone so passionate as George about the protection, preservation and exhibition of classic films, film prints and now too high quality digital re-releases. In partnership with Mark Spratt, George co-founded and is co-director of Chapel Distribution – an independent repertory distributor for Australia and New Zealand with a library of many titles you see regularly appearing at the Astor. Films such as Flying Down to Rio, screening as part of a special event in June with the Cairo Club Orchestra live, and the upcoming 4K digital re-release of The Sound of Music, are titles that we are very pleased to see return to the big screen this year.

We are also very lucky to have film print enthusiast Craige Blencoe working at Chapel who devotes a lot of his time to sourcing rare film prints for some of the titles Chapel hold theatrical rights to. Recently, Craige discovered a 70mm film print of The Last Starfighter down a salt mine in Mount Iza and we are pleased to be presenting that in two weeks time on Monday May 14th. In a slightly different kind of discovery we will be presenting on Monday May 7th a 70mm film print of The Right Stuff -  a film print recently discovered by Roadshow in the depths of their warehouse in Brisbane. We hope to be presenting even more 35mm and 70mm film print discoveries later in the year as they are discovered and, if the films, once tested, are in runnable condition.

In terms of seasons on this calendar we are also pleased to announce three Sunday evening double features commencing June 10th of The Marx Brothers: Carnival of Mayhem, featuring 4 35mm film prints and two digital presentations. We also very excited to see some of David Lynch’s films back up on the big screen from Sunday July 22nd. Although we tried our hardest to include his entire oeuvre, there were several titles unavailable in terms of theatrical rights in our territory. I’d like to thank the Edinburgh Film House for their assistance in the process of trying to track down the likes of Wild at Heart, David Lynch’s short films and The Elephant Man. Sadly these titles weren’t available to us at the present time here in Australia but we do hope that we might see them in the future and are still working on bringing some of these great films back to the big screen.

A few other sessions that we’re extraordinarily pleased to be presenting on this calendar include a special Melbourne Exclusive screening of The Chemical Brothers: Don’t Think and Faithless: Passing the Baton, both presented on 2K digital Friday May 18th, a special screening of CinemaLive’s Don Giovanni Opera Australia, two rare 35mm film prints of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo and The Holy Mountain, a new 2K DCP of the 1968 musical Oliver!, a special event called Lebowski Bash Melbourne, which includes a Lebowski Tribute band, a Dude lookalike contest, a trivia competition and a Kahlua White Russian bar after party, as well as of course welcoming back regular event screenings of Grease Sing-A-Long, The Blues Brothers and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

We hope this goes some way to explaining at least some of the processes we go through when programming but of course, as always, we welcome your comments, suggestions and feedback so that we can continue to strive to make the Astor Calendar the very best in repertory film programming and so that we can continue to screen the very best in both film and digital projection.

Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre – excerpt from original introduction at May 2012 Calendar Launch.