Stephen A. Russell

24 Aug 2014 - 11:10 AM  UPDATED 24 Aug 2014 - 11:13 AM

The Astor Theatre, the iconic single-screen repertory cinema in Melbourne’s Bayside suburb of St Kilda, has announced that due to the collapse of negotiations with the Art Deco building’s landlord, they will cease operation in early 2015 before the lease expires in May.

George Florence has owned the business entity since 1982 but does not own the building in which it is housed. The previous owners, the nearby St Michaels Grammar, had planned to convert the building into a performing arts centre, but a public outcry spearheaded by The Friends of the Astor Association (FOTAA) convinced the school to sell.

This prompted the sale of the building to current landlord Ralph Taranto of Ralamar Nominees. Tara Judah, programming and content assistant at the Astor, says that the new owners initially appeared ready to work with the cinema management and FOTAA towards placing the business in a not-for-profit trust. “That was the main reason we didn’t exercise our first option to buy,” she says.

"We live in a multiplex culture and we’re losing a lot of our heritage.”

Judah says the idea of the trust was taken off the table after the contract of sale went through, with the Astor management subsequently excluded from the negotiation process and presented with a lease agreement that would be financially crippling, including paying the considerable insurance premium for the heritage 1-listed building for the first time.

“While we’re not a not-for-profit business, it’s always been run as one,” Judah says. “Any money ever made has always gone straight back into the business, whether that be replacing curtains or new uniforms for the staff. It’s never been George’s vision that this should be about moneymaking. The essence of the Astor is to preserve a cinema-going tradition, with a single-screen picture palace that provides a wonderful and unique experience and continues the preservation and exhibition of film prints.”

The 19x9m screen is the only one in Australia to regularly screen 70mm prints of cinematic classics including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Baraka and Pink Floyd The Wall. Combining cult hits with classics alongside new releases, the Astor also has a Barco 4K 32B digital projector, the highest quality available. The picture house plays host to the annual St Kilda Film Festival as well as end-of-year screenings for universities including Deacon and Swinburne.

“The Astor is not just the building or the programming, it’s the marriage of those two things,” Judah says. “Trying to extract the essence of the Astor from this building is like removing somebody’s soul. We live in a multiplex culture and we’re losing a lot of our heritage.”

Benjamin Zeccola, vice president of the Independent Cinemas Association of Australia  and CEO of Palace Cinemas said that Florence had done a “spectacular job,” over the last 30 plus years. “He’s established and managed to maintain the Astor as a very special place in the heart of Melburnians and possibly across Australia. ICCA is very sad he won’t be able to continue in that venue.”

However, Zeccola pointed out that the Astor had changed hands several times since opening in 1936 and he hoped it would continue to exist in its current form. “Ralph is a cinema lover who worked in projection rooms in the 1940s and has chased cinema investments his whole life, and as a restorer. I’m sure George will be able to pursue his passion for cinemas in other ways.”

Dale Smith, a spokesman for Taranto’s Ralamar Nominees said the company would press ahead with repairs to the building’s interior. “It is heritage 1-listed and any changes would have to be approved as far as any future development,” Smith said. “If there are any interested parties, we’d like to keep it as a single screen cinema.”