In the glory days of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, cinema-going was a grand social occasion. Great cinema-owning families — the Humphreys, the Roodals, the Gokool Meahs and others — ran empires spanning Trinidad, Barbados, the Eastern Caribbean islands, and what was then British Guiana. Queues stretched around the block for a popular movie.
Traditional cinemas have run into hard times. In 1986 there were 56 cinemas in Trinidad and Tobago. Now that is down to 16, 15 more than most of the smaller islands. What was The Roxy in Port of Spain is now a Pizza Hut — and a very splendid one at that. The Astor in Woodbrook and the Super Star on Abercromby Street are evangelical churches. Others have been converted into supermarkets and parking lots. The art deco De Luxe, just off the Savannah in Port of Spain, is still there, a little shabby in places, but with plenty of personality, and home each October to the two-week European Film Festival. But it doesn’t show movies regularly anymore.
The big screen can still draw the crowds. Last year was a good year — The Mummy Returns, Fast and Furious, Tomb Raider and Jurassic Park IV were runaway hits. New releases come to the Caribbean soon after they’re shown in the USA, at times simultaneously, and usually before they hit Europe.
But now there are plenty of other ways to catch a movie. In Trinidad and Barbados television in the 1980s meant a single, rather drab state-owned channel. Now, there’s cable and satellite-based Direct TV, with dozens of channels and the possibility of a couple of hundred before long. Guyana still has 18 cinemas, but there are also 17 TV channels, mostly rebroadcasting US programming, with local news, chat shows and a thick scatter of Bollywood. The Barbados phone book lists 34 places to rent a video or a DVD.
With copyright enforcement distinctly fuzzy, video rental and cable costs are artificially low in some parts of the region, making it hard for the movie house to compete. If Blackbeard the pirate were alive, says the Jamaica Gleaner, he would have been attracted to that island’s cable industry.
But the couch-potato experience is strictly limited. A cinema visit isn’t just for seeing a film. Yes, some movies do work better on a big screen with all-digital sound. But that’s not the point. Cinema is a night out with friends or family, while video or cable is at home, phone ringing, dinner to cook, parents, children, all the distractions.
The cinema-obsessives are still there. Mike goes four times a week to the Globe in Port of Spain — same show, same seat, but something extra to spot each time. And by the last day a quiverful of smart comments to entertain the audience.
The Mikes are a minority. But the industry is finding new ways to pull in the punters. In Barbados, the Olympus Theatres multiplex at Sheraton Mall, close to the south coast, has stadium-style seating for 1,633 patrons and all-digital sound, with six screens and almost 11,000 showings a year, one starting almost every 15 minutes from 2 p.m. onwards. There’s an Ambrosia Jazz Café with Mexican food and broschettas, high-speed internet access, facilities for childrens’ birthday parties and conferences for the grown-ups.
With multiple screens, the weekly offering can cover drama, comedy, action, romance, with room for something different, too. Plans include a French film festival, and this February-March a Merchant Ivory festival, showing both in Barbados and at the family’s De Luxe cinema in Trinidad. This will include the Caribbean’s first screening of the Mystic Masseur, shot mainly in Trinidad in 2001, based on the novel by the Nobel prize-winning author, V. S. Naipaul.
In Trinidad, the ten-screen Movie Towne multiplex is due to open this year at Invaders’ Bay, just west of Port of Spain. There will be a food court with an ice cream parlour and sports bar, birthday party and conference facilities, a children’s playground and a games arcade for teenagers. In Jamaica, Kingston and Montego Bay have five- and four-screen multiplexes.
Perhaps the glory days are coming back.