The Colourful History of Sawtell First Avenue Cinema

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Sawtell First Avenue Cinema has a colourful history and still proudly displays some historic elements such as manual film projection. Cinema Manager, Col Brissett, shares with us the unique story of this quaint venue.

We hear that you’re one of the only cinemas still using film reels … 

The Cinema has managed to survive the test of time and is one of the very few single-screen Cinemas still operating in Australia. A film projector is still being currently used, but technology is fast catching up, and a new state of the art digital projector will need to be purchased next year for the doors to remain open.

The projector that is currently in use is a French Cinemeccanica and is powered by a 1000 Watt Xenon globe. A film, which is wound onto a large spool, is secured on to one side of a machine called a ‘Mutt’, and is then hand fed through the projector, passing the lens and the sound drum, and back onto an empty spool, which is attached to the opposite side of the ‘Mutt’.

Through the years, most projectionists have been predominantly male – due to the fact that the spools of film are quite heavy and require a fair bit of strength to lift. A film arrives from the distributors by courier and takes approximately 1 – 1.5 hours to prepare for screening.

Unfortunately, the industry is changing very rapidly due to the digital age. Despite  35 mm film projecting being very labour intensive, it will be a sad day when this format finally disappears and cinemas will have to rely on computer technology, not man-power.

What’s the best thing about your job?

The best part of working in this industry is seeing the smiles on our patrons’ faces when they come out of the cinema after seeing an enjoyable film. It also gives me great satisfaction knowing that I have booked in a film which they have enjoyed.

Describe your typical day at the cinema.

A lot of my working day is spent programming, searching the website, reading reviews and keeping a close eye on the box office figures, which give good indicators as to whether a film is performing or not. It’s funny that a lot of people come up to me and say I’ve got the best job in the world, sitting here all day watching movies – if only that was true!

My brother John looks after the candy bar and projection room, which gives me time to do the research and paperwork.

We also have several other casual staff members who greatly assist in the running of the cinema.

Tell us about the role played by ‘Friends of Sawtell Cinema’.

While the cinema has struggled at different times, we have been very fortunate to have the ‘Friends of Sawtell Cinema’, a very dedicated group which originally started in 2009, to assist us get back on our feet after the devastating flood. We now have over 150 members, who for a small annual fee receive discounted movie tickets to every film and monthly ‘event’ nights, as well as receiving 1 free ticket yearly. Each film, selected monthly, includes pre-show drinks, nibbles and entertainment.

Tell us about the film festivals and special events that you run at the cinema.

We have always tried to diversify a little by screening foreign and art-house films, as well as supporting the Australian film industry as often as we can. An article in the Sun Herald recently explained that the Government needed to support smaller independent cinemas like ours, otherwise it will be fruitless funding Australian projects, as there will be no smaller independents left to screen our own product – due to the fact that a majority of the multi-plexes prefer the main stream (American) films for their target audience.

We have had great success this year by doing some live performances, i.e. Opera, Jazz (Swingphonia) choirs, guitarists, and we’ve even had a wedding ceremony. This leads to my theory that cinemas will become entertainment venues in the future, screening live sport, concerts, operas, etc. to enable them to combat the new technology being developed (3D TVs, home theatre systems, digital TV boxes etc).

I’m not sure that 3D is going to be the future for film though … but that’s just my opinion! For me, you’ve still got to have a good story!                      Do you have anything major planned for the cinema in 2012?

Next year we have a live ‘Illusionist’ show planned for November/December, ‘Flickerfest’ short film festival in February, our own International Film Festivals in May/June and October/November and a premiere screening of the new Australian film Thirst, directed by our own locally talented Robert Carter and Mark and Megan George.

Thanks Col. We look forward to seeing you at the movies!

History of the Cinema

The cinema was purchased by my grandparents, Doris and Alan Brissett, in 1941. The cinema is currently owned by my parents, Barrie and Gretel, and has been managed by myself and my brother John for the past 10 years. My grandmother was born in Bonville and actually started up the very first shop in Sawtell, a general store, at the age of 15. Prior to Alan and Doris purchasing the old building, it was a Community Hall, staging dances, church, public meetings and the like. In 1941, they converted the building into a cinema and built a tiered wooden floor to enable patrons to have a much better view of the films.

In 1955, disaster struck, and a mini-cyclone ripped through Sawtell – totally demolishing the cinema. Barrie, who was on leave from the Army, had to fly up from Sydney and assist in removing all of the debris, so that work could commence on re-building the complex. While re-building, ‘the show must go on’ became the catch-cry, and Sawtell had its very own open-air cinema for the next 12 months! The projector was powered by an old Ford pick-up truck battery, and patrons would bring their own cap-guns for the Westerns and umbrellas for those rainy nights.

The cinema was rebuilt in triple brick and still stands today, despite disaster striking again in March 2009, when a metre of water flooded the town causing extensive damage and forcing the cinema to close for 6 weeks.


One Response to The Colourful History of Sawtell First Avenue Cinema

  1. Gregory Harmer says:

    It was truly enjoyable reading this story I spent most of my years from the age of 15yrs old from a cinema usher to manager /projectionist working living in NZ then in Australia. 40yrs + in the industry missing it terribly now at the age of 65 looking to lease a cinema that is looking for a cinema operator. I attended the cinema pioneer dinner in Sydney that was held in November 2018 it was fantastic catching up with every one connected in the industry. cheers for now Greg Harmer

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