Outback cinema turns the spotlight with non-profit model

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As a little girl growing up in her father’s open-air theater in the Queensland hinterland, Geraldine Coughlan learned early on that it takes resilience to make sure the show can continue.

“My dad took over in 1965 after my grandfather passed away and I was 66, so I literally grew up all my life with the theater on our doorstep,” she said.

One of 10 siblings, the kids used spotlights, gathered the crowds, and kept the candy bar spotlessly stocked during the heyday of the Royal Theater Winton.

Over the years, Ms Coughlan’s family saw the cinema destroyed by fire, rebuilt, used as a roller skating rink, then as a cafe, and become largely unused as the film business became commercially unsustainable.

A sold-out crowd at the Outback Festival this month. (Provided: Winton Movies Inc.)

Until just three years ago, it was only used sporadically for tourist events and an annual film festival.

“It was literally empty for quite a while there, the first time I saw the back here was when I started volunteering,” said John Durack, a Winton resident. , 19 years old.

Young man making popcorn
Winton local John Durack is happy to see that the theater is in regular use. (ABC News: Ellie Ground)

A loyal clan of volunteers – many of whom have family ties to cinema – are working to restore the theater to its former glory as a nonprofit organization.

“I came to the Gold Coast for a week for catering in February… my family knew that once I got here I would probably stay,” Ms. Coughlan said.

Cinema as a building site
The Royal Theater during a restoration in February of this year. (Provided: Winton Movies Inc.)

“More on the experience than on the film”

The nonprofit cinema offers classic movies and “nostalgic nights” with old news alongside new releases to keep costs down.

“John Wayne movies can have up to 100 people, some movies are not copyrighted so when we play it only costs around $ 12 for the movie,” Ms. Coughlan said.

“It’s a unique theater and sitting on the canvas seats under the night sky with the galahs coming in doesn’t happen everywhere… it’s nostalgic and really nice to have something else to do.”

Exterior of an old house photo.
It is hoped that the Royal Theater will increase its program from three to five evenings per week. (ABC News: Ellie Grounds)

Winton’s volunteers want to make the century-old cinema a major tourist attraction for the city, but the nonprofit model can also operate small movie houses to serve their local communities.

“We can’t let it go to scrap and ruin”

In the town of Barcaldine, a three-hour drive southwest of Winton, the historic picture house was reopened by volunteers in 1995.

Exterior of the house photo from the 1920s
The Barcaldine Radio Theater opened in 1926 during the silent movie era. (ABC News: Ellie Grounds)

Trevor Howie said the council owned the building but relied on a team of more than 20 volunteers to organize the content and run the program two evenings per week.

“You have to have this grassroots team that has this momentum and motivation to keep going,” he said.

Man collecting boxes of popcorn at Candy bar.
Trevor Howie is one of over 20 locals who volunteer at the Barcaldine Radio Theater. (ABC News: Ellie Grounds)

“Even when they’re not around, the volunteers tend to come and watch a movie and if it’s crowded, they’ll step in and help,” said Raylene Osmond.

Winton Cinema is closing for the summer this weekend, ahead of its scheduled reopening in March.

But the sweltering outback summer won’t be a break for Geraldine, who has a long list of restores and upgrades she wants to complete during the break.

“We are all driven by one vision and that is to build this facility for the next 50 years and pass it on to the next generation,” Ms. Coughlan said.


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