Sunday, June 25, 2006

Schonell closes down

Brisbane has lost another another cultural icon. The best independent cinema in the city closed down yesterday. Saturday June 24 was the last showing day at the Schonell Theatre on the University of Queensland campus in the Brisbane suburb of St Lucia. The cinema held free sessions all day to commemorate its passing. The Schonell will remain open in the short-term at least for theatrical events.

The cinema was founded in 1970. Throughout its 36 year operation it specialised in screening world movies, alternative films and documentaries. They showed independent cinema that would never have been shown at the multiplexes. Student Union president Lucy Weber says the closure is "heart-breaking", but unavoidable, as other union services for students must take priority over cinema screenings. The cinema has not made a profit since the 1980s. The theatre had undergone a $3.3 million facelift as recently as 2004.

The cinema was run by the UQ student union and was shut as a result of funding cuts due to VSU. VSU is Voluntary Student Unionism, controversial legislation brought in by the Howard federal Government in 2005. Prior to this, Australia had Universal Student Unionism, where Universities charged all enrolled students a set of fees, such an Amenities and Services fee, and those fees go toward important student services and the student unions. VSU is the abolition of universities' ability to charge fees for student services that are not academically related. The Government rationale is that VSU means freedom of choice. But the ulterior motive of VSU was to weaken the power of university union groups which are predominantly controlled by Labor and leftist groups. The end result is that campus social services subsidised by the student union bodies such as legal aid, child care and cinemas are shut down.

When it came to a vote for closure, members of the UQ Liberal Club and independents had supported the Schonell cinema continuing to trade but the vote to close the venue was carried by the Labor majority on the student union in order to make funds available for other priorities such as student advocacy, representation and welfare. The Liberals claimed the financial records actually showed the Schonell breaking even. This is denied by the Labor majority.

The Schonell is not the only Brisbane cinema to pass into history in recent times. The city's last single screen cinema, the Chermside Dawn, which opened in 1928, closed last August. It followed the demise of other single screen cinema in the last ten years such as the Crystal at Windsor, the Civic at Gaythorne and the Classic at East Brisbane.

It isn’t that people no longer go to cinemas. The Australian Bureau of Statistics figures suggest that cinema is still the most popular cultural activity in the land. Australia has 2000 cinema screens (triple the number of screens 20 years ago) and box-office takings this year ($373 million to date) up almost 15 per cent for the same time last year.

But it is the multiplexes and the slick operations of the independent chains such as Dendy and Palace that are making the money. Later this year, Dendy will open a five-screen cinema complex in the Portside development on the Brisbane River at Hamilton. Dendy Films based in NSW specialises in world cinema. Palace spread from their Victoria base and also have their own film company which has financed Australian films such as Rolf de Heer’s highly acclaimed Ten Canoes. These smaller chains rely on their distribution arm to survive. Schonell could never compete on this level.

Schonell’s final screening was the documentary Cunnamulla by ex-UQ alumni Dennis Rourke. It was Schonell’s biggest ever earner and a suitable way to finish. The documentary ends with a statement about the town being at the end of the railway line. Now the Schonell has reached the end of its line. It will be sadly missed.

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