[Richard Warrington photo]

A light in the dark

Cinecenta celebrates 30 years of “the magic of movies”

by Becky Lockhart

When Doug Sprenger arrived at UVic in 1970, he was astonished to find there was nothing on campus to satisfy a movie-lover. And if you wanted to see a movie, you had one choice — the big screen. There was no such thing as a video.

So the 17-year-old Sprenger made it his ambition to bring the very best in international film to UVic. Thirty years later, the establishment he founded — Cinecenta — is a thriving campus theatre enjoyed by thousands of film buffs in the UVic and Greater Victoria communities.

Named after a repertory cinema in London, England, Cinecenta presents a range of international, alternative, classic and mainstream movies nightly on a year-round basis.

In its early years Cinecenta operated on a flimsy screen in MacLaurin 144, now the David Lam Auditorium. Using borrowed 16mm equipment and showing films Sprenger attained through intense negotiations with movie bigwigs, Cinecenta brought to Victoria international and alternative movies that could not be seen elsewhere.

But what really put Cinecenta on the map, says Sprenger, was Monterey Pop, a film of a Woodstock-like music festival featuring the likes of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. The showings didn’t just pack, they overflowed, so Cinecenta showed the film simultaneously in MacLaurin and Elliott. A runner from the track team sprinted the reels between buildings.

“After a while, viewers started to trust us and would come and see movies they’d never heard of just because we’d chosen them. And when the movies were over, people would stand around and discuss them,” says Sprenger, who now works in the library and as CUPE 951 president.

As it grew in popularity, Cincenta increased the number of showings from just weekend nights to every night, and the Alma Mater Society (now the UVic Students’ Society) opened a real theatre in 1976 with 302 seats — the current Cinecenta. When Sprenger started working in the UVic library in 1977, alumnus Michael Hoppe entered the picture, progressing from doorman to promoter to co-manager before leaving for another job in 1980. In 1994 he returned as Cinecenta’s program coordinator. “Coming back to movies felt like coming home, “ he says, adding that he considers it a privilege to pick movies he thinks people will like.

Of course, a lot has changed in terms of the nature and availability of second-run movies over 30 years. Hollywood blockbusters are now “milked” by the time they reach Hoppe, videos are a national addiction and some great old movies are no longer available. Yet Cinecenta has managed to remain a vital part of the community.

This is largely due to more than 1,300 outside community members who buy yearly passes, and the guaranteed popularity of some old and new classics. One thing that hasn’t changed is the “Cinecenta choice,” a phrase coined by Sprenger. “Within any given week we offer a wide variety of choice, with a diverse range of alternative and classic films,” explains Hoppe. “At least once a week, you can see a movie here that wouldn’t get shown elsewhere.”

Sprenger also came up with the title “Cinemagic” for the early movie calendars, because he believed, and still does, in the magic of movies. “I think all art has the power of change, and it is about bringing light into darkness. Getting people to think is so important, and Cinecenta still facilitates this.”

Cinecenta, located in the Student Union Building, is currently displaying some of its best movie posters from the last three decades. On Oct. 23, a “Mystery Movie” is being presented — a special sneak preview of a brand new film before it is released.