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Saving the Regal: The Fight for Newy Film Royalty

Only five years after reopening, Newcastle’s beloved independent cinema, the Regal, is once again facing closure. Nikola Jokanovic talks to Regal manager and showman George Merryman.

Newy is a city built on its heritage. Almost every old nook and cranny of the beach-bumming surf town we know today has an ancient story to tell; and with things changing here all the time, it’s places like the Regal Cinema in Birmingham Gardens where those roots dig deepest.

“The space started as a community hall, it was built by volunteer labour in the 1930s. It was then converted to a cinema in the early fifties, and it’s been a cinema ever since,” says George Merryman, the manager, showman, box office handler, projectionist and ever-smiling face of the Regal Cinema. Together with his wife Jo, the pair manage Newcastle’s last and longest-running single-screen cinema.

The Regal is one of Newcastle’s true community callings. With over fifty years of movie-going heritage, many were sad to see the cinema go in 2007, shut down by the Newcastle City Council over fire safety concerns. The closure sparked a hundreds-strong community campaign called Friends of the Regal, who petitioned the Council not to lose the heritage cinema for over five years. Finally, in 2012, the matter came down to one final vote. Jo Smith couldn’t sleep.

“Friends of the Regal sent an email saying ‘tomorrow night Council will vote to sell the building for redevelopment’, like the apartment blocks on either side of us today,” recalls George. “We were living in the Blue Mountains at the time, working in Sydney. At 4 o’clock she finally got up, said ‘that’s it’, and we went to address Council in person.” As long-time members of the Australian film and television industry, George and Jo brought some muscle with them in the form of a last-minute, four-in-the-morning petition from 22 industry figures (the Chaser boys, to name a few) to save the cinema.

“We drove down, looking a wreck since we’d been up all night. But in that meeting, the vote shifted, and the Regal was given three more months.” Jo was named the head of a committee overseeing the Regal’s grand reopening; George and Jo found themselves in a position they hadn’t anticipated hours earlier, let alone one they would still be holding six years on.

2014 marked the cinema’s revival. With a $140,000 Council grant, and a sprinkling of Hollywood magic, the Regal jumped from dire straits to state-of-the-art. “George Miller was making Happy Feet 2 in Sydney. He’d set up a purpose-built cinema, a hundred-seater, not much smaller than the Regal, brand new projection and surround sound.” With the equipment set to be parcelled off at the movie’s completion, Jo sent an against-all-odds letter to Miller, telling of the Regal’s plight. “Amazingly, we got through the right channels, and they decided to send it all to our little cinema in Newcastle. We had it on lay-buy, Jo was making these sad little monthly payments for the equipment, and eventually Miller said ‘please, just stop, it’s fine’, so we didn’t even pay the whole amount,” laughs George.

There’s nothing quite like catching a film at the Regal, which is a community space just as well as it is a cinema. George mans the box office for every session, smiles and all. Tickets are just eight dollars, and you can get a choc top with it for eleven. Immediately upon entering you’ll find a table spread with complimentary tea and coffee, orange juice and wine, and opposite you’ll find another stacked with home-baked cakes, cookies, slices, sweets, treats and more. Volunteers, of which there are more than one hundred on the books, will pass through the aisles, offering freshly baked goodies or cleaning up before the curtains draw. A house band, the High Andies, will sometimes pop in for a half-hour set before screenings; and, of course, George personally introduces each and every film screened at the Regal, cracking jokes before ducking upstairs to push play.

Unlike the age-old moviegoing adage, good things don’t last forever in real life. The Regal is tucked away in suburban Birmingham Gardens, with no obvious transport options nearby. The cinema’s attendees rely on a large carpark fifty meters from the cinema. In early June, a Council notice was posted, announcing plans to redevelop the area. The redevelopments would include freshly paved footpaths, planted trees, public park facilities, a fancy new bus shelter, and the loss of over half of the parking spaces upon which the business and livelihood of the Regal depends.

George and Jo immediately realised what this would mean. “We get booked out sessions every weekend. It’s volume that keeps the doors open. The loss of the car spots would make the Regal financially unviable,” said George. “How often have you wanted to patronise a place, but kept driving because you couldn’t find a park? Or, you didn’t even make the effort, because you knew there wouldn’t be parking? It’s the lifeblood of any business.”

What makes the current situation strangely unique is that it isn’t black-and-white, good-bad. Birmingham Gardens is a suburb on the rise, and the Regal has been recognised as a cultural cornerstone of the area, and of Newy at large; the redevelopments were, in fact, an attempt to beautify the area, with the Regal as it’s crown jewel. “We’ve called it the carpark paradox,” says George. “An effort to highlight the Regal will be the exact thing that kills it.”

The community hasn’t lost its fighting spirit when it comes to the Regal. The first wave of community response resulted in over 2,000 individual submissions, a petition with around 450 names and over 180 individual emails to the Lord Mayor. “People were actually getting their emails bounced back, the response crashed the Council’s servers,” laughed George. The floor has been opened to the Regal team to address Council at Town Hall on Tuesday, the 18th of September, and patrons and interested community members have been invited to come and show their support for the continuing survival of the Regal Cinema.

Community response: upon being invited to ‘have a say’ on the proposed plans for the Regal’s Moore street, community members flooded the Council’s inbox.

George thinks it all comes down to the real sense of community with which the Regal has been infused since day one. “Jo really set the tone and tenor of the Regal Cinema. It was her idea to serve complimentary drinks and treats on arrival. Her thinking was that it would give strangers permission to speak to one another, even if it’s just to say ‘get out of the way!’, but it would create a communal feeling.”

It’s not uncommon to see the same faces every time you go to the Regal. George confesses that many of the elder patrons attend each and every weekend, regardless of what’s screening. The space has been opened up to community events, themed nights, special screenings, and even showcases for the work of university students; the loss of the Regal Cinema would be a great loss for Newy’s film culture.

George teaches screenwriting at the UTS on weekdays, and Jo is the executive director of the Australian Guild of Screen Composers; the two of them devote their weekends to the Regal out of an obvious love for the communal experience of a great film.

“We don’t say ‘we’re going to work’, we say to ourselves, ‘we’re going to the movies.’ When I present a session, I feel the same way I feel at the box office. I’m never uncomfortable or nervous about addressing a full house because I’ve just chatted to each and every one of those people. The chat’s just continuing when I’m up the front.”

You can still contact the Newcastle City Council to let them know where you stand on this community matter.

The Regal Team will address Council on Tuesday the 18th of September, 5:30pm, at City Hall (290 King Street), and the Council will vote on the matter on Tuesday the 25th of September.

Community members are welcome and encouraged to attend either or both events.

Feature Image: The Regal Cinema via www.regalcinema.org, no changes made

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