Timişoara, European Capital of Culture: Former cinemas are reopening as modern multifunctional spaces
In 2023, Timişoara will be the European Capital of Culture. In this context, the cultural infrastructure is undergoing major transformations. One of the most important is the extensive process through which several former state cinemas, extremely degraded and closed for several years, are being renovated to become multifunctional spaces.
The Project Center of the Municipality of Timişoara, an institution founded in 2021 and run by the City Council, is responsible for reintroducing them into the city’s social and cultural circuit.
One of these spaces, Cinema Victoria, opened this year, and since September it has been running full-time, with a program consisting mostly of film screenings, but also concerts, theater and dance performances, or other cultural events.
Next year, two other multifunctional halls, also former cinemas part of the bankrupt RADEF network, will be available: Cinema Dacia and Cinema Timiș. They will be joined by the highly anticipated Cinema Studio, which will run exclusively as an arthouse cinema and cinematheque, equipped with two screens and a rooftop for hosting outdoor screenings.
Cinema Victoria, as well as the other future venues, are managed by a small team led by Ioana Dragomirescu, who returned to her hometown, Timișoara, after managing the Elvire Popesco Cinema in Bucharest for several years and after previously living in France, where she worked for a well-known independent film distributor, Le Pacte.
I took this opportunity to invite Ioana Dragomirescu for an interview to learn more about these spaces so vital for the city’s cultural and social life, but mainly about Timişoara’s first art cinema in years.
What were the main challenges when you took over the management of Cinema Victoria?
If I may say so, when I took charge of the Elvire Popesco Cinema in Bucharest in September 2018, I got on a train that was already running and managed to make it run even better. Since I took over the management of Cinema Victoria in Timișoara in September 2022, the feeling is rather that I’m pushing a locomotive on the tracks to make it move off from a standstill.
Together with the small team I coordinate, we are building something new, from scratch at Cinema Victoria. We strive to transform a renovated hall – that is, some rooms, some walls and some technical equipment – into a lively, effervescent and full-time running place. We’re giving this theater an identity, we’re providing it with communication channels for the public (cinemavictoria-tm.ro was launched a week after its opening), and we’re making it a prime spot for film distributors and festivals in the country.
The greatest challenge is to build an audience for European arthouse films, to bring people back to the cinema, given that there hasn’t been an urban movie theater in Timișoara for over ten years and any habit of attending such a place is long gone, and then to undo this practice of free attendance when it comes to cultural consumption, which is quite deeply rooted in the city (here, local event organizers are often harder to convince than the public).
Obviously, there are also many challenges of a more “common” nature: learning the necessary skills, including technical ones, within the team for the proper functioning of the cinema; managing situations such as the projector malfunctioning, an alarm beeping, or a leaky toilet; handling all the authorizations, contracts, reports, statements and administrative processes, which is an important task because Cinema Victoria is managed and financed by funds from the local budget, in addition to ticket revenues.
But above all, it’s difficult to find the balance between having a small team and all the things that we have to do in order for Cinema Victoria to run at least five days a week and to the highest quality standard. We haven’t been able to achieve that yet, we’re working hard, often without enjoying days off or breaks, but we are happy to see results and excited to have the chance to create something of value and quality for the people in Timișoara.
What has guided you and your team in conceiving the theater’s program in these first months of existence, bearing in mind that it’s actually a multifunctional hall that doesn’t host only film screenings?
Many of the European independent cinemas are not spaces dedicated exclusively to film events, I would even dare say that the most innovative ones bill themselves as “event-based cinemas, film, theater & cafe”, or other such titles. We see this versatility as an advantage and an opportunity to create a diverse and attractive program, and at the same time to give a slightly different identity to each of the theaters that will reopen. Besides film screenings, which make up most of Cinema Victoria’s program, we also want to host community events and initiatives by local cultural operators. We seek to be a curated but open and community-oriented scene. In fact, we’ve seen high demand from operators and we’ve even had to refuse collaborations due to being fully booked. Organizing these events requires more work on our part, but we think it’s worth the effort. And the theater itself was designed in that direction: the movie screen rises, opening to a performance stage.
So far we’ve hosted three independent theater performances, two dance performances and several conferences, and in December we will host two Christmas concerts and a contemporary circus performance.
Certain events accompany and complement the film program, and I don’t just mean the important but classic Q&A sessions with the filmmakers. For example, on December 3rd, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we organized a screening accessible to people with hearing, visual and motor impairments, as well as a sign language workshop that had over 150 participants.
How did you find the moviegoing scene in Timişoara?
Honestly, I don’t remember much about the former cinemas in my teen years, they were already old and rather empty. In the meantime, Cinema City monopolized Timişoara and opened a rather large number of theaters (i.e. 25), perhaps because there was no other competition with the last state cinema having ceased its activity over a decade ago.
The hard core of moviegoers survived, fueled by local festivals such as Ceau, Cinema!, even if the screenings took place in alternative spaces and not in cinemas. The re-opening of a movie theater downtown, outside the malls, has been met with great excitement, we have felt the people’s enthusiasm both here, at the cinema, and online – on social media and looking at our website traffic statistics.
It quickly became clear that the audience is not limited to this cinephile core, which was our goal from the beginning so we’re glad to see things going this way.
Would you say Cinema Victoria has already gained a loyal audience? If so, how would you describe it?
I think to get a better idea we should look at the numbers, which exceeded our initial estimates. Between September 16 and October 15 we had over 2,600 spectators, with an average of about 50 spectators per event (Cinema Victoria has 193 seats). Out of 55 organized events, 49 were film screenings. In the second month, we went up to 4,000 spectators, with an average of 75 spectators per event, with film screenings once again representing the main segment of the program. Therefore, cinema is the core identity of Victoria at this moment.
Our audience includes neighborhood residents, students from the nearby schools, seniors who remember coming to Cinema Victoria in their youth, parents who bring their children to animations on the weekend, but also people who haven’t been to the cinema in years and keep asking us if it will continue to run, they still can’t believe it reopened. It’s worth mentioning that over 15% of the viewers in the first two months were children under 12; the school screenings organized within the CinEd program have made a major contribution.
The public is curious, previews, festivals and screenings in the presence of the filmmakers have been very well received – we’ve even had Q&As that lasted up to two hours – but I’d say we’re still in an exploration and development phase. In general, we can’t run a film more than 3-5 times, the turnover is high. Sometimes our offer is not that successful: for example, documentaries, Anca Damian’s animations (which are not only for children), or Fassbinder’s films (which were shown in a focus organized by the Contrasens Cultural Association, the German Cultural Centre Timișoara and Cinema Victoria) didn’t attract that many people, but we continue to program such titles in order to educate and create a diverse audience, without, of course, marginalizing recent releases: European, Romanian and occasionally American arthouse films.
So far we’ve hosted eight festivals and thematic screenings organized in partnership with various local or national cultural operators, which have been a great addition to our film program. We also have special screenings showcasing authors from Timișoara, which play an important role in building a community around the cinema – from young director Lucas Neagu’s short films to The Road and The Happiness: Annapurna, a bicycle touring documentary following six friends from Banat venturing into the Himalayas, which filled the theater twice, or Swamp City, a documentary about the ’90s underground music scene in Timișoara, scheduled to screen in a few days.
What’s the status on the other theaters, including Cinema Studio? Will they all open their doors next year?
The initial timeline was a bit more optimistic, but there have obviously been surprises along the way, not to mention the difficulties due to the global political-economic context of this past year. Still, things are progressing well with the renovation of all three theaters, Timiș, Dacia and Studio. The renovation work on Cinema Studio is by far the most complex; it preserves only the facade of the building, everything else will be redone. The project aims for a theater with two screening rooms, two bars, a rooftop for hosting outdoor screenings, and many other facilities.
The plan is to finish their renovation next year so they are functional for the European Capital of Culture program. We hope to open Cinema Dacia and Cinema Timiș at the beginning of summer and Cinema Studio in early autumn. But for that, we also need to expand our team.
What role do Cinema Victoria and the other theaters play in the context of the European Capital of Culture program, in your opinion?
The theaters will definitely host some of the events within the European Capital of Culture program. After all, it’s what prompted the local authorities to invest heavily in their renovation and re-opening.
The team that manages the theaters is a department of the Project Center, whose mission is to implement the European Capital of Culture program, so obviously, it’s a priority for all of us. Not all projects on the agenda are meant for the cinema hall, so they won’t automatically be included in the theaters’ program, but we will work together with the event’s curators and cultural operators and do our best to host and contribute to the success of as many of them as possible.
On the other hand, the theaters will also have, like Cinema Victoria, a regular program, which requires a lot of content. Therefore, they will also screen films distributed in Romania and host events and festivals that are not part of the European Capital of Culture program, but whose organizers wish to develop more important editions in Timișoara in 2023, to mark their presence on the national cultural scene and attract local audiences and tourists who will hopefully come to visit the city. Things don’t start and end with this title, we rather see it as a booster for the local cultural life. Cinema Victoria has enjoyed a great start, so we’re hoping that all the other theaters that are being renovated will be just as fortunate, meaning they will gain a loyal audience and continue to run successfully after the 2023 agenda.
To what extent do you think that will happen?
That is the big bet. Three renovated theaters totaling 1,500 seats in a city with a population of about 400,000 inhabitants, without a strong cinema culture, is not an easy equation to solve. On the other hand, these first months since Cinema Victoria re-opened exceeded our expectations. So the people of Timișoara may also surprise us in the longer term.
Our job is to contribute to the development of a large and loyal audience, and we hope that the energy and enthusiasm around the European Capital of Culture program in 2023 will produce long-lasting effects and people will continue to consume independent cultural acts – cinema, theater, concerts, talks – even after this special year will end. There is still plenty of room for growth and there are many ideas we’re eager to explore. We’ve only just begun!