Cinecenta celebrates 50 years as a campus and community hub

Culture Film

Theatre featuring 1971 movie showcase to mark occasion

Photo by Belle White.

Lisa Sheppard’s first date with her husband was at Cinecenta. The movie was Buena Vista Social Club, and she wasn’t convinced it was a match.

“He kept dancing in his seat,” she said. “There almost wasn’t a second date, but somehow it worked out.” 

Sheppard, who’s been the manager of Cinecenta since 1993, isn’t the only person who’s had big moments in her life take place in the dark fabric seats. 

For 50 years, the UVic campus movie theatre has been a home away from home for students, community members, and a close bunch of long-serving staff members. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the theatre is celebrating as best they can, with a showcase of movies from its founding year.

Cinecenta was created in 1971 when then-UVic student Doug Sprenger started showing 16-millimetre films in the MacLaurin auditorium. What began as a casual event a few nights a week quickly took off, and within four years the students’ society built the 300-person theatre in the Student Union Building that Cinecenta still calls home. Sprenger named Cinecenta after a theatre in London that focused on showing classic films.

Over the years, the theatre has hosted everything from film festivals to live performances to silent movies. It’s been renovated multiple times, with the most recent update being a $20 000 upgrade in 2018. Currently, about 30 students work at either Cinecenta or its concession stand and cafe, the Munchie Bar. 

When she was thinking about how to celebrate Cinecenta’s 50th, Theatre Programmer Amy Anderson started researching movies that were released in 1971. Anderson is responsible for selecting and securing the rights to the movies that Cinecenta shows.

“1971 was actually quite a good year for movies,” she said. “It just was sort of seeing what played that year and seeing ‘oh, that’s kind of representative of the stuff we like to program here.’” 

By contacting distributors, Anderson was able to get most of the movies for free. This means that tickets to the 1971 showcase are cheaper at $5 each.

Though they’re happy to be open again after a long, pandemic-induced shutdown, Cinecenta’s anniversary didn’t fall at an ideal time. Initially, Sheppard and Anderson were hoping to have a party but had to scale back since it didn’t seem possible.

“We’re just sad for Cinecenta that…it didn’t get the proper attention it should have gotten,” said Sheppard.

The pandemic posed other challenges too. Since reopening on Sept. 8, the theatre hasn’t gotten the same levels of attendance it used to. The movies that attract bigger crowds have changed: in the past, newer releases used to sell the most tickets, but Anderson has been finding that classics have been doing just as well or better.

Despite recent challenges, Cinecenta is dear to the hearts of many people who have crossed its path. 

Anderson grew up going to movies at Cinecenta with her mom, who worked on campus. The first time she went to a movie by herself, at age 11, it was at Cinecenta. The movie was Me and Orson Welles and Anderson promptly lost her ticket after buying it.

“I had to go back and beg … luckily they remembered me because I was the only kid there by myself,” she said. “I felt so grown up.”

When she started at UVic as a student, Anderson kept spending time at the theatre.

“It was just like a second home to me as an undergrad … when I was stressed about school I would come here and study,” she said.

She eventually got a job at Cinecenta and worked her way through various positions, eventually getting her current role when the previous programmer, Michael Hoppe, retired.

Hoppe was part of Cinecenta’s early years, working with Sprenger and then managing the theatre later in the 1970s. After some years away, he returned as the programmer, staying in that position for over two decades until his retirement three years ago. For years, Hoppe worked closely with Sheppard, who also started working at the theatre in her undergrad, working in most of the different jobs until she took over as manager in 1993. 

Its longstanding staff aren’t the only people who have had Cinecenta play a big part in their lives. 

“We get random emails from people just gushing about [how] they’ve been coming for decades and decades and they just love us so much,” said Sheppard. “It’s just a really wonderful feeling to be part of this exciting thing that we do.”

Cinecenta’s long-term plans are to keep its programming engaging and reach more people. Sheppard wants people to know Cinecenta isn’t just for students and that they have great prices for tickets and popcorn — which is served with real butter.

Mostly, Cinecenta’s plans are to keep doing what they do best: showing movies.

This December, in addition to the 1971 movie showcase, Sheppard recommends seeing It’s a Wonderful Life and Anderson recommends Benadetta, which is showing for the first time in Victoria. 

Cinecenta’s schedule can be found here or in its print guide.