The Fate of Havana’s Neighborhood Cinemas

Daisy Valera

The old Strand Cinema.
The old Strand Cinema.

HAVANA TIMES — Less than a year ago, private 3D home theaters – an initiative that spread to most Havana’s neighborhoods before it was nipped at the bud – demonstrated that it is still possible to tap the potential of a Cuban tradition that is most likely about to become extinct.

Even though admission was often 25 times that established for Cuban State cinemas (2 Cuban pesos), private home theaters that screened 3D films had a huge demand and gave residents of Havana an alternative to Vedado’s familiar movie theater circuit.

The tradition of the neighborhood theater seemed to experience a kind of rebirth. In an economically precarious environment where other forms of cultural consumption had taken center-stage, the people of Havana began to make the choice it had made regularly half a century before: “to see and let oneself be seen”, using the movie screen as a pretext.

In 1958, immense signs showing a film scene or the face of one of the leads decorated the walls of Havana. Every week, delivery people from different cinemas took the theater’s program to people’s homes, and, on weekends, the entrances to these establishments welcomed crowds of people wearing their Sunday best. With admissions at 20 and 60 cents, even the humblest could afford to attend a show.

The Record Cinema
The Record Cinema

At the time, the Cuban capital boasted around 130 movie theaters, more than there were in New York or Paris at the time. Many of these cinemas were directly serviced by important production and distribution companies, such as 20th Century Fox, Columbia and Metro Goldwyin Meyer.

Asking about the fate of these privileged establishments of Havana’s past, we find that many (usually the smallest) have disappeared and that others, now virtually in ruins, are being utilized for cultural projects that receive practically no financial aid from the State.

What was once the Rex Cinema is today a warehouse where the cleaning utensils of Havana’s garbage collectors are stored. The former Florencia and Finlay theaters, to be transformed into the venues of the Teatro de la Luna theater company and the Cuban Rap Agency, respectively, are highly deteriorated and restoration efforts are constantly being interrupted.

Los Angeles Cinema
Los Angeles Cinema

A number of theaters that have been shut down for decades are now being rented out, as is the case of the Florida and Apolo cinemas in Havana’s municipality of Diez de Octubre. Others are operating as video-projection theaters (one is located in what was once the Los Angeles cinema).

The Neptuno, which, along with the Actualidades, was one of the first cinemas in the Cuban capital (and housed a disco at one point), is today propped up by wooden scaffolding and about to be demolished.

Though the disappearance of neighborhood movie theaters is a global phenomenon, these buildings are rarely replaced by others in Cuba’s case. Generally, these establishments are allowed to deteriorate into uninhabitable spaces before being handed over to the community.

Despite the interest awakened by cultural events such as the Havana Film Festival, the French Cinema Festival and the screening of foreign films, the island’s movie theaters continue to screen films without any efforts to diversify their cultural programs, as the La Rampa or Radiocentro theaters did until 1959.

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10 thoughts on “The Fate of Havana’s Neighborhood Cinemas

  • Something to add to this is in regard to copyright law. The private home theatres were not paying out the proper fees to the license holder of the film. In most countries the major studios would force the shut down of these operations. Bit Torrents, file sharing and unauthorized showing of movies to the public is killing the film industry. This is the same problem the music industry is having. The government of Cuba has been setting a bad example for years with movies in their cinemas and not paying the proper licensing fees, this also goes for state television where they have pirated TV shows from networks around the world. If Cubans were caught stealing they would face harsh punishment yet the state is allowed to steal intellectual property?

  • Hi Patricia;
    Sorry about the bad link, that link is the entire film for industry and film festivals. The link for the trailer is here

  • I’d love to watch your trailer, but you need a password on Vimeo. Can you either make it not private or provide a password? Thanks!

  • As a film maker and a very frequent visitor to Cuba I would like to offer my part to the dialogue. I’ve been to many Cuban cinemas and have visited the many derelict cinemas throughout the country. One time my wife and I decided to see a movie at a cinema on the square in Bayamo. We saw Kill Bill starring Uma Thurman on a large television screen placed on the stage. The film projector had died years ago and besides it was getting very difficult to get the actual films for the projectors. It was a surreal experience watching this little screen in a large building and it gave us an eerie feeling The funny part of this was we ran into Uma Thurman a couple of weeks later in Havana.

    Cine Cuba theatre is just up the street from the studio of a respected revolutionary photographer. The photographer and his family left five decades ago but the Cine Cuba theatre is still there, still handsome on the outside. I was there to figure out what William Alexander Morgan was up to before and during the revolution.

    “Billy Morgan’s Revolution in Cuba” is a compelling look into the weird life of William Morgan and the destiny of the Castro versus USA craziness. This 100% Canadian independent production takes a neutral stance on the issue and received zero funding from any government or group. It starts screening in September at select North American festivals and then the world festival circuit. I am currently seeking donations in kind for the Spanish translation, narration and/or subtitles to qualify for the Havana Film Festival in December. If the movie makes it through a censor or two I’d be very proud to share the story I found with my Cuban friends. If they wish to ban it in Cuba, the closest film festival will hopefully be Miami Independent Film Festival in December. You can see the trailer on Vimeo here

    Cheers, Andrew Watson, Producer/Director

  • Re-read what you write before posting. You decry the use of big publicity budgets as the reason there is less “smaller budget films with high artistic integrity”. Yet, you acknowledge in the very next sentence that the problem indie films face is the lack of publicity. It seems you acknowledge the problem AND criticize the solution at the same time. You should also keep in mind that film is art and like all art subject to personal preference. I have never heard of the movie you say is your family Thanksgiving classic. Is it because that movie lacked a big Hollywood promotion budget? I suspect it is simply not a movie that I would be drawn to. I say this because your political views seem so different than mine that I suspect our movie choices will differ dramatically as well. BTW, my family enjoys a small budget film classic called “the Five Heartbeats” again and again on Thanksgiving after we have engorged ourselves on Turkey and football. Heard of it? Finally, my friend, I appreciate the dig at the end of your comment. I will tell you that I am writing this from my rooftop terrace, not the basement. Wrong again.

  • Since the Hollywood dream factories have huge budgets with which to publicize their blockbusters, they tend to place ever more resources into making them, rather than smaller budget films with high artistic integrity. Of independent films made in Hollywood and and elsewhere, a big problem is lack of publicity and distribution. Sure, many of these films are showcased at various film festivals, then given limited release in Manhattan and a few other cities, but they seldom make it to the hinterlands. Of course there is Netflicks,, Vimeo, YouTube and a few other on-line venues, but the potential audience first has to know that these film exists, and without sufficient resources many worthy films languish in obscurity. Sometimes, one of these films, through word-of-mouth, etc, gets a lucky break (e.g. “Open Water”). Most often, we never hear of them. One which has become a Thanksgiving classic with our family is “Pieces of April.”
    Although I’m not a great afficionado of Hip Hop and Reggaeton (although even there, there is an occasional work which rises from the solipsistic swamp characteristic of most of these genres), you’re right about Twitter. Due to its limitations, it is mostly about posting cliches and slogans. (“Sing[ing] all live-long day before an admiring bog.” It would be another thing if even some of the Twiteratti were a bit witty, like Voltaire or Johnson, but most are dimwits. As for Facebook, I do check in a couple of times a week, and exchange at length with a few bright friends, but for the most part I have better things to do most of the time, like reading (old fashioned, hard-copy volumes), or working in my garden, volunteering for a local organization which presents classical concerts, leading a monthly book discussion group, making a sanctuary for birds (err, and black bears, too!) on my property, etc. Life is too precious–and too short–to spend all my time as a troll, typing insults from my basement!

  • Your comments make you sound like an old fart. You might as well be waxing nostalgic for the good ole’ days of silent movies before the advent of “talkies”. It’s called progress. First, it is not an “alleged expansion of choice”. Now, even the poorest would-be movie aficionado can enjoy a top-quality HD/Blue Ray film without paying high theater prices. Second, Hollywood has ALWAYS dominated the movie business. However, today that dominance is shared by a greater number of indie film producers whose product has nothing to do with Hollywood. Third, there are MORE not less “R&D” films because of digital filmmaking. You could not be more wrong when you berate the improvements in filmmaking. The 2013 Oscar-winning small film like “Twelve Years a Slave” would have never seen the light of day years ago. I suspect you hate Hip Hop and Reggaeton music and struggle with everyone using Twitter and Facebook as well.

  • Besides the glorious architecture of these “picture palaces,” what I miss most about these neighborhood movie houses was the social atmosphere of sharing a cultural experience with family and friends. As a child, it was the ritual of the Saturday afternoon matinee, usually with friends, watching a western or sci. fi. As a young adult, it was enjoying French New Wave, Italian Neo-Realism, or other genres, then adjourning to a nearby watering hole to discuss. The movies, since they are the most easily accessable art form, are also the most democratic. Now, we are ever more isolated and alienated. Also, in spite of the alleged expansion of choice via DVD, streaming, etc., for the most part the greatest % of films viewed are predictable “product” of Hollywood. Ever fewer “R.&D.” films, ever more trashy “R.&R.” movies. Again, I can’t help but feeling that there is manipulation of the mass psychology into a more passive and isolating mode.

  • The private home theatres had to be closed by the regime. Firstly they were taking away customers from the state owned theatres where the state controls what is being shown and secondly they represented private enterprise and initiative both of which are unacceptable to the state. Those who suggest at home movie services do not comprehend the limitations of Cuba. Such services would also be private enterprise. The way US citizens live in the USA is entirely different from the way Cubans are obliged to live in Cuba, one cannot place them within the same context – that is not the way “we live”.

  • Theaters are being largely replaced by at-home movie services . It’s cheaper, more convenient and this is but one more example of how technological advances are changing the way we live.
    Back in the early 50’s I lived in a neighborhood that had four movie theaters .
    We got two feature films and a bunch of cartoons for 25 cents and candy bars and popcorn were about 5 cents .
    One theater: The “Oriental” had a Chinese motif with large Buddhas on the sides of the theater with glowing green jewels for eyes .
    The ceiling was a mass of tiny bulbs that looked like stars and they had a machine that simulated clouds drifting across that starry ceiling .
    The lobby had overstuffed chairs and oriental carpeting throughout.

    All those theatres are now closed .
    But the memories live on.
    Thanks for your take on these changes.

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