Bums on seats will have a new meaning when Canberra’s Center Cinema closes on June 1. Most of its 500 seats are for sale. The price varies with their condition. When installed in 1967, the seats were innovative, retracting to allow patrons to walk, not squeeze past. As the seating aged, the likelihood of slipping off during a movie increased. One motivation for purchase is to take revenge with an axe.

The rise and fall of the Center Cinema tracks the history of screen culture since television shut down hundreds of venues from the 1950s. Opening in 1967, Centre Cinema met the double demand for a theatre with a non-mainstream programme.

Center Cinema has always been an independent exhibitor, conducted since the late 1970s by Andrew Pike and his spouse Dr Merrilyn Fitzpatrick. Their debt-laden family business is unable to afford a refit. The closure leaves Canberra with the twin Electric Shadows which they opened in 1979. Survival as an independent exhibitor-distributor has required adapting to the changes in the industry by filling niches. Before SBS killed foreign-language imports, they did well by importing French works.

“The worst excesses of bullying by the majors are gone”, Pike says. “The requirement to book blocks of films is over. Independents can now bid for what we want.” Although economists have explained that what he had thought was “collusion” is no more than “unconscious parallelism”, the pressures from the big boys have not disappeared. The word that sends a chill up my spine is Policy with a capital-P. Major distributors impose Policy of a minimum number of weeks, screenings and session times”.

The other problem is getting exclusive rights to enough mainstream movies to ensure a profitable operation. “The chains are voracious”. During the past decade, the number of screens in Canberra more than doubled towards forty. “Our solid audience has been attracted away by an oversupply of cinemas more than by videos. Yet, a repertory programme of black-and-whites and silents is successful”.

As more decisions for the chains are made in Los Angeles, Pike has responded by personalizing his cinemas. In contrast to the global on-line blurbs, he writes every word of an email newsletter to 4000 subscribers. “Independents cannot complete head-on so we emphasize the local and the idiosyncratic, hosting festivals, video launches and fundraisers”.

Andrew Pike became known to movie buffs from 1980 as the co-author of Australian Film 1900 to 1977. Less recognised is his role in Strictly Ballroom and Shine where early engagement in the distribution campaign allowed for input at the script development stage. Pike’s personal favourite, however, remains Road to Nhill, the understatement of which matches his personal style. “I enjoy working with documentary makers because ego is less an issue than in features”.

The couple set up Ronin Films in 1974, which now distributes video documentaries to educational and community groups. Pike had co-directed Angels of War on the war in Papua-New Guinea seen through the eyes of the locals. He has recently returned to production, working with an Iranian refugee.

Beyond reinventing their own commercial survival, what inspires Pike and Fitzpatrick is a project to regenerate country towns by making film-screenings into social gatherings. Typically, they are donating 150 of the seats to a community theatre in Yass.