Once-vibrant Patission Street cinema district slowly dying

Early one Friday afternoon at the entrance of the Aello Theater on Patission Street, I saw a rare scene unfold. A few solitary filmgoers were buying tickets for a matinee. There was a 20-year-old man daydreaming while pretending to read a magazine and a well-dressed woman hurrying into the miniplex, but not a couple in sight. They left behind the dying daylight, the freshly decorated Christmas stores and the back-and-forth of so many trolley buses to do something that is increasingly rare in this part of Athens: see a movie. I didn’t think anyone went to the cinema at 5 p.m. anymore. The matinee seems to have disappeared along with midday siestas, after workdays were extended due to the increased productivity demands of a modern European world. I lived this relaxed Athenian life firsthand. I remember when people worked until 3 p.m., ate together as a family, took a long afternoon nap, and, if they felt like it, strolled to the neighborhood cinema to see what was playing. But it only takes a few steps somewhere between Aghios Meletios and Amerikis Square for me to wake up to the realities of 2005. The old-style marquee introducing the Attika, that classic cinema, did not light up this September. Ama Films, its operator, closed it as the result of a particularly bad season. Efforts last year to resurrect the legendary studio Playtime (renamed Studio Novo) from the dead also failed. From September 2004 until last spring, some 10,500 tickets were sold – the same number one of the Village cinema multiplexes sells on a so-so Saturday. Last year, the landmark Radio City Theater closed, along with the neighboring Kalouta Theater. They were replaced with a supermarket from the Vassilopoulos chain. For many people, this chain of events signals the death rattle of what was once the biggest movie theater district in Athens. Of the 28 movie theaters which operated at the beginning of the 1980s, only eight remain open this year and only four of those are open during the summer. With the exception of the Aello Theater, which is doing reasonably well, the road ahead for the remaining theaters looks tough. Dimitris Stergiakis of Ama Films, which operated two auditoriums in the Attika on Amerikis Square, does not see any light at the end of the tunnel. «Patission has died,» he lamented. The transformation of the Aello Theater into a miniplex seems decisive, he says. He also says the opening of the Ster multiplex on Acharnon Street will be bad for the renovated Aello. An official from the Aello Theater offered a different view. While he understands the competition posed by the multiplex at Aghios Eleftherios, which opened last Christmas, he says he is not ready to sign the death certificate for the movie theater district of Patission. «It’s true that Ster has attracted a younger audience, but we, meaning the Aello, do a fairly good business relying almost entirely on older filmgoers and people from the neighborhood,» said Mr Tsakalakis. «The fact that we have gotten older has not changed us. We continue to be a theater with unique characteristics.» So how does he explain the closing of so many old-style theaters on Patission Street? «I think if you give your customers what they want, a high-quality environment with all the modern comforts, they will come. The standards have changed and we must change with them.» A changing audience The truth is that most old theaters are not good investments. There were significant improvements over the years, as in the case of the Attika or Radio City, but they weren’t enough to make a difference. Another factor is the change in the types of people who live in the neighborhoods surrounding Patission’s movie theater district. The urbanization of the area, which began in the 1970s, sent many Athenians fleeing the center for the southern and northern suburbs. Thousands of immigrants have also moved into nearby Kypseli and Kato Patissia. Fewer Greeks are going to the cinemas and multiplexes in the center. Meanwhile, many of the area’s newest residents – immigrants – appear to be interested in pursuits other than the cinema. These two changes together have decreased the viability of the old theaters on Patission Street. «We have a lot of foreigners coming to our theaters,» Mr Tsakalakis from the Aello Theater said, but there are not enough filmgoers to keep the theaters busy. Giorgos Tziotzios, director of the firm that operated Playtime, blames the change in numbers on his failure to resurrect the old theater as Studio Novo. «From Patission Street on down, Greeks are now a minority,» he said. «And Greeks rarely went to our theaters anyway, unless you count the old fans of Studio. I hope you don’t take offense at this, but many of our customers didn’t like to leave the theater and see tavernas and video clubs with signs in Russian or Romanian.» Tziotzios says he regrets his efforts to save the old theater, which he said he did entirely for sentimental reasons. «I believed the studio was struggling because of a poor choice of films,» he said. «I realize now that I made a big mistake. The area has ceased to have the characteristics that once drew it as a district for cinema, as in the case of Studio, which in 1988 was selling 150,000 tickets. Last year, we worked hard to sell just over 10,000 tickets.»