A list of ten of the best cinemas in New Zealand.
Exploring New Zealand, one of the things that impressed me the most was their cinema culture. Even many of the small towns I visited had an art cinema and many towns had restored their 1930s Art Deco cinemas to their original glory. While I sadly could not visit every cinema in the country and was mostly limited to the South Island, I still managed to select a few that I think must be some of the best cinemas in New Zealand.
1. The Lido, Auckland. The Lido originally opened as the Regent in 1925. It has been fully restored and boasts a beautiful Art Deco exterior and even more stunning interior. The Lido contains two cinemas, the main cinema and the lounge. It also features a luxurious lobby, complete with armchairs and fireplace, and an extensively stocked wine bar. This is no popcorn and soda theatre. I saw Coco Avant Chanel (2009) in the Lido`s main theatre, which was complete with armchair style seating covered in pale blue velvet and plenty of space between the rows. This was my first taste of the New Zealand luxury cinema experience but would not be my last. For more information, pictures and screening times see: http://www.lido.co.nz/.
2. The Embassy, Wellington. The Embassy opened in 1924 as the Deluxe with a capacity of 1,749 and one of the largest screens ever built in the Southern Hemisphere. Renovated and updated in the mid-1960s, it was restored again in 2003 for a Lord of the Rings premiere. It currently has a very small program but also hosts special events. It’s an imposing theatre in downtown Wellington, stunning to look at. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to do more than peak into the lobby but due to its history and recent revival I could hardly leave it off the list. For more information see: http://www.deluxe.co.nz/.
3. Regent on Worcester, Christchurch. The Regent is housed in a gorgeous restored building right off Cathedral Square in the centre of town. Built in 1930 as one large auditorium with a capacity of 1,568, in the 1950s the Regent was even attended by the Queen during her New Zealand tour. The auditorium was destroyed by fire in 1976 and the entire roof of the building collapsed in on the theatre (there are some incredible photos of this event in the theatre lobby). In the early 1980s, the cinema was rebuilt with two theatres. It now houses four. Though only the facade remains from the original, walking up the grand staircase still always feels like an experience. Fantastic programming, from commercial features to local films to documentaries and art cinema, as well as Tuesday specials meant I spent a lot of time in this great theatre. Though it is owned by a large Australian cinema corporation, they have done a great job maintaining its integrity. For show times see: http://www.hoyts.co.nz.
4. Cinema Paradiso, Wanaka. I cannot express how cool this cinema really is. Located in a lakeside vacation town in Central Otago, Cinema Paradiso is quite possibly the most fun place to go in Wanaka at night. I wish I could have packed it up and taken it with me when I left. The cinema features local beers and wines at great prices, as well as homemade food. You can have your appetizer during the previews and your main during the feature. There’s a small cafe and bar attached to the cinema, open between screenings. Programming is eclectic, ranging from commercial features to foreign films, all second run. What sets this cinema apart from all the other funky small town venues is the theatre itself. Instead of typical theatre seats, you have the option of worn couches, loveseats, reclining armchairs, bean bag chairs, park benches and the oh-so-coveted convertible VW bug with seating for two, parked in the second row. There’s an intermission for every film so you can grab another beer or more delicious food. Cinema Paradiso is by far the funkiest cinema I’ve ever had the chance to go to and if I lived in Wanaka, I probably would never give up that bug. For more information see: http://www.paradiso.net.nz/home.html.
5. Paramount Theatre, Wellington. This theatre may not have experienced the expensive restoration offered to the Embassy, but it has such a great space and so much character it has to make the list. Built in 1917, it is one of the oldest still operating theatres in the North Island. It may look a little plain from the outside but walk up the grand staircase into the Paramount`s very large lounge with a huge balcony. This acts as the ticket counter, snack bar and simply a regular bar at any time of the day. They also hold weekly movie trivia nights. The Paramount has one large auditorium and two smaller screening rooms and boasts some of the best programming I have ever seen. Second run art house films and local cinema dominate the program, with a different movie playing practically every hour from 10am to 10pm on one of the three screens. I watched A Serious Man in one of the smaller screening rooms, which was possibly the most comfortable small theatre I’ve ever seen a film in. Instead of theatre seats, blue velvet lounge seats are arranged in four rows. The couches are in great condition and you can just take off your shoes and curl up and enjoy the film like you’re in your own living room. Highly recommended for a quiet afternoon or evening: http://www.paramount.co.nz/.
6. Metro Gold Cinemas, Christchurch. This boutique cinema has four little theatres, a small lobby and a very cute lounge upstairs where you can have a drink before the show. The Metro Gold makes the list because it’s casual, has very friendly and knowledgeable staff, the films they show (in conjunction with Art Cinema Christchurch) are fantastic and most of all it is incredibly comfortable. Large red velvet armchair style seats make up the theatre rows with an armrest designed like a table so you can rest your glass of wine or local beer. The Metro is a little more low key than its partner the Academy (#9) but it’s a great newly renovated little theatre. For more information see: http://www.artfilms.co.nz/theatre_metrogold.php.
7. Dorothy Browns Cinemas, Arrowtown. Arrowtown itself is strange and wonderful. The tiny gold mining town has recently been completely rejuvenated and now boasts a strip of some of the nicest bars, shops and cafes in Central Otago. Dorothy Browns fits right in. A luxurious and uniquely modern movie house, Dorothy Browns contains two theatres decorated with arm chair seating, adorned by Chinese silk pillows, cashmere throw blankets if you get chilly and a ceiling covered with Chinese tapestry panels. Dorothy Browns was named after an Arrowtown historical figure, a photographer who lived (controversially) during the gold rush days with a Chinese goldminer. The cinema is tailored for the complete night out. A small lobby greets you with red possum lined armchairs arranged around a fireplace. Books and various arts and crafts items are displayed for purchase. A very well stocked bar even offers a cheeseboard combo with your favourite wine or bubbles and the armrests are perfectly designed to accommodate this platter. One of the most beautiful modern cinemas I have ever been too, Dorothy Browns is ideal for a romantic evening or an indulgent night with girlfriends. For more information see: http://www.dorothybrowns.com/allmovies.php
8. Academy Cinemas, Christchurch. Located in the Christchurch Arts Centre in a building that used to be the high school boys gym, the Academy Cinemas contains both the main auditorium and the Casablanca Bar, a smaller screening room on the upper level. The Academy Cinemas, along with the Metro Gold, are part of the Art Cinema chain which operates in Christchurch, committed to programming foreign and art films, local cinema and occasional film festivals. The Academy is a very nice little cinema but it is the programming that makes this one worth the visit, rather than the special features of the cinema itself. For more information see: http://www.artfilms.co.nz/
9. The Regent Theatre, Hokitika. A small city on the West Coast of New Zealand, Hokitika boasts two movie theatres, the historic Regent and the fairly modern Crooked Mile Talking Movies, an art cinema. The Regent is an impressive building, one of the highlights of the Hokitika town centre. Built in the 1930s, the Regent has been in continuous operation despite funding struggles and has been mostly restored to its art deco glory, though the restoration continues. Though the theatre plays primarily second run mainstream films, the fact that this small city has managed to keep their historical theatre alive and well remains impressive and they really have done a beautiful job. For more information see: http://www.hokitikaregent.com/
10. State Cinema 6, Nelson. I could not find much information on the history of the State Cinema 6 in Nelson but I did love the cinema as it reminded me of going to the movies in the 1980s and earl y 90s (though the building looked like the cinema must be at least fifty years old). Before the massive movie complexes but after the beautiful picture palaces and art deco theatres, there were some theatres that were just simple, with smallish screens, great popcorn, teenage kids working with no uniforms and a random selection of B movies, mixed with whatever the top romantic comedies are at the time for you to choose from. It felt like going to the movies as a kid again and I thought it was a lot of fun. In true New Zealand style, however, even the commercial houses like the (independent) State Cinema 6 devote a chunk of their programming to art films and New Zealand films. The State Cinema 6 has one theatre solely devoted to these types of films so those interested in seeing more than just Hollywood fare still have a selection to choose from. For more information see: http://www.statecinemas.co.nz/now_showing.php.
In the end, what I loved about the cinemas in New Zealand was how much people cared about seeing great movies from all around the world and preserving their history and their culture. There was a true film culture in New Zealand and the attention paid to theatre restoration and quality programming is inspiring.