For Peter Yiannoudes, there’s something religious about going to the movies.
“The cinema is something I feel like my own church, my own monument,” he tells me as we meet in his office, a small cathedral to cinema, nestled behind the Westgarth Theatre in Melbourne’s inner north.
A quick look around verifies the sanctity of cinema. The walls are covered with Greek film posters from the 1940s to the 1970s. There are two big, old projectors hiding in the corner of the room. The only two things that point to it being the present day are the Collingwood Premiership 2010 poster and a film poster for My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Through a gentle, cracked smile, he apologises for the mess. But it isn’t messy, it’s just full of relics from the cinematic past.
Yiannoudes, a softly-spoken man with a head of proud, ashen hair and a quiet laugh, explains that the office will soon be converted into a small museum. So it seems his hoarding has turned out in his favour.
The cinephile is talking to me after the launch of his book, Greek Cinema Across Australia: Behind the Scenes. He says he never intended to write a book, but his vast collection of movie posters, flyers, projectors and photos just couldn’t stay locked behind the scenes forever.
In fact, when his book was launched in Cyprus last year, he donated a vast collection to a museum there.
But to tell the story of Greek cinema in Australia, we flash back to 1956.
Yiannoudes is a 20 year-old man, fresh off the boat from Cyprus, and he longs to work in the movies. For now, he doesn’t have the cash, so he’s working in a factory while studying business administration. But he keeps drifting back to the big screen.
“When I came to Australia I noticed that the people who screened Greek films, were in my opinion not professional, they also didn’t bring good quality films,” he says.
So the young entrepreneur wrote to friends in Cyprus, where he had worked as an assistant ticket seller in various cinemas. He wanted to strike a deal with producers Finos Films, to get exclusive rights to their Greek films in Australia.
The very next year, Yiannoudes bought the rights to his first Greek film – Golfo.
For the next four years, the young Cypriot took the film on tour, carting his bulky projector and his precious reel of film to 150 country towns around Australia. It was a resounding success.
“Nearly 80 per cent of the Greek Australians saw this film,” he says.
“I screened it in cattle stations, I screened it in small churches, and anywhere where there were 20 people or more.”
He even screened the movie underground, in mines in Western Australia, he tells me, his eyes lighting up like diamonds.
The only phrase in English was ‘house full’
Then marriage restricted Yiannoudes’ travel, so he showed his movies in Town Halls around Melbourne with his new company, Cosmopolitan Motion Pictures.
Such was the success of the venture, Cosmopolitan Motion Pictures was able to buy their first theatre in 1961: the National Theatre in Bridge Road, Richmond.
The National was the first Greek cinema in Australia, and Yiannoudes tells me it used to bustle with Greek migrants.
“The only phrase in English was ‘house full’,” he says with a soft laugh.
For the next 20 years, the cinema empire grew. Around Melbourne, Yiannoudes and his crew of cinephiles bought another five movie houses: the Sun Theatre in Yarraville, the Empire Theatre in Brunswick, the Kinema Theatre in Albert Park, the Paramount Theatre in Oakleigh and of course, the Westgarth. They also continued to screen films interstate, especially in Sydney and Adelaide.
In 1976, Finos Films tried to reproduce one of their greatest successes, The Nazis Strike Again, only to find their only copy had been destroyed. Luckily, Finos had given Yiannoudes a copy of the 1946 comedy as a wedding present, so he sent it back to Greece to be copied.
It was the only way the successful film is still in existence, and it’s important, Yiannoudes says, because it’s a reminder of the horrors of war.
“This film has to be seen again and again,” he says, narrating the best parts of the story at a cracking pace, hands gesticulating like a silent-era comedy star.
This was the heyday of Greek cinema in Australia. But video killed the cinema star. From the late 70s to early 80s, the advent of colour TV, the screening of foreign films on SBS and the video meant his audiences were no longer rushing to the movies.
Yiannoudes’ projectors whirred to a halt in cinema after cinema. ‘Sold’ stickers replaced ‘house full’ signs. Now the only theatre he owns is the Westgarth, although since 2005 he has leased it to Palace Theatres.
“Meanwhile, around the same time in Greece people start making a lot of low-budget films, horrible films, and so people get sick of it,” he says.
For Yiannoudes, Greek cinema is something close to his heart, and he takes its decline very personally. His face screws up when he talks about contemporary Greek cinema, and about producers being intent on profit at the expense of story.
“These types of films cannot last,” he says, fading himself a bit.
“It’s like the old music, if you get the old songs like Frank Sinatra, you love them even now. The new songs, you hear them for two months, and you’ve forgotten about them. It’s the same with cinema.”
I point to the poster for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which is just above his desk. Yiannoudes shrugs and tells me “it’s a good comedy, but it’s not a lasting film.”
Not like Golfo.
Yiannoudes says he would have watched Golfo over a thousand times, and he still loves it.
“See, I have a small cinema in my home,” he says quietly, like he’s telling me a secret victory.
“So sometimes, when I’m alone with nothing to do, I put Golfo in the machine.”
But the story of Greek cinema in Australia isn’t over. Yiannoudes still gets hundreds of Greek Australians to the Westgarth once a month, where he screens his old Greek movies.
“I feel proud that we continue the long-running story,” he says.
It’s easy to imagine Yiannoudes among the bustling senior citizens at the Westgarth. Crowding into the old cinema with a box of Jaffas, enjoying the opening frames of Golfo. Again.