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

  • June 29, 2014 at 7:18 am

    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?

  • June 29, 2014 at 6:58 am

    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

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