Kinodämmerung Bellaria | Twilight of the Movie Houses

Vienna’s temple of movie nostalgia, the legendary Bellaria cinema, has gone dark. Energetic rescue attempts are going on behind the screen, but a happy end is not yet in sight.

There is something immensely sad about a shuttered storefront. Rough chipboard behind the glass panes has replaced the tempting displays, cheerful activity and moments of drama. A life has been suddenly snuffed out, like roadkill. Even sadder, a movie house. After 107 years the Bellaria cinema has closed its doors. Over the Museumstrasse, a quiet little alley behind the Volkstheater, hangs the hush of a churchyard. 

For decades the Bellaria had survived on a diet of nostalgia, often from the 1950s and 1960s; original posters of Hollywood heartthrobs and Berlin beauties, who lived on on-screen. The 4 o’clock matinee was the pick of pensioners, but gradually that too dwindled. Rising costs and shrinking revenue led to the inevitable. “I’ve always said,” Bellaria owner Erich Hemmelmayer told Kurier in December, “the moment I have to support the business out of my own pocket, I’ll give it up.” Sadly, he was as good as his word.

Kinosterben – an endangered species

The steady loss of the city’s cinemas is an old story: in 1927 Vienna had over 170 theaters, by the 1980s it was down to about 100 and today there are fewer than 30. Older Viennese and retro-hungry hipsters alike bemoan it, but are equally part of the problem: In an online world where even DVDs are obsolete, we are being less than honest.

Still, a closer look shows that Vienna is still a thriving movie city: There may be fewer theaters, but the number of screens and overall attendance are steady.  Christian Dörfler, owner of the Haydn-Kino and spokesman for the industry has little patience with the gloom and doom: “Every business has its ups and downs” he told DerStandard. He is convinced cinemas will be around for a long time yet. “Going to the movies is about getting out of the house, doing something with friends.” 

His colleague Christian Langhammer, owner of the dominant Cineplexx chain, is equally robust about the future of movie-going in an age of streaming and handheld devices: “Everybody has a kitchen at home, but they still like to go out for a meal.”

The White Knight?

Frédéric Kaczek is Director of the Jewish Filmfestivals Wien (JFW) and determined to rescue the Bellaria. He sees the problem in the dominance of the American movie industry machine. At any one time he told Metropole, 2-3 big Hollywood films are occupying 15 locations, making it very hard for European productions and festivals like his to find theater space.

His goal is a partnership of the Bellaria with two or three of the other old movie theaters to form a kind of art house group, sharing niche market films and pooling their advertising resources. 

As always the catch is money: Kaczek reckons that they can meet the running costs with an art house program, but the investment needed to bring the old theaters up to standard is prohibitive. Bellaria alone would need around €250,000 to meet accessibility, health and safety and other requirements, money that could only come from angel investors. Various federal culture funds and the City of Vienna provide some ongoing support, but that has been steadily declining and they are not prepared to help with renovation. Vienna’s ex-culture czar Andreas Mailath-Pokorny once made it brutally clear: “We don’t renovate bookstores either.”

All best wishes from Vienna, City of Culture.

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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