Featured in the September 2018 issue, the Centrum Panorama in the Czech Republic, is a temple to the big screen. Mark Lyndon MBKS interviews Pavel Nejtek, the driving force behind its renaissance.
The Centrum Panorama in the heart of Bohemia is where you will find Pavel Nejtek. Dubbed locally the “The Magnificent Showman”, he is the mastermind behind a cinema that champions giant screen 70mm film exhibition. Interviewed through his interpreter, Martin Sinkmajer, Mr Nejtek explains how his passion for the big screen and its cultural heritage have developed over the years. His model is a lesson for exhibitors around the world.
Mark Lyndon: This complex would not be here without the backing of your successful business, which pioneered neon light advertising in Europe. How did that company begin?
Pavel Nejtek: My father established the neon lighting advertising business in 1936. We don’t know exactly how many companies were involved in neon lighting at that time but my father was certainly one of the pioneers in the sector.
ML: That developed into a company which subsequently took over the Centrum Panorama building in Varnsdorf, on the Czech/German border. What was the sequence of events that led to its acquisition and restoration from dereliction?
PN: Since my childhood, cinematography and cinema technology fascinated me. I owned my first projector when I was at primary school — I still own it to this day. Having completed my basic education, I continued by specialising in electronics and focussing on cinema technology. When I was 20 years old, I began my collection of examples of cinema technology. Parts of this collection are housed in the Centrum Panorama building. Although that was my passion, my main job was in Czech television as an engineer of film production. My dedication to cinema technology never wavered though and I kept up my contacts in the area.
In the 1990s, I relaunched my father’s company and began producing neon advertising. This happened when he was still present to witness the company’s renaissance — I was obliged to suspend my passion for cinema technology in order to rebuild the neon business. At the end of the last, and the beginning of this century, I was sorely missing my first love though, so I made a life-changing decision and started thinking seriously about renewing my interest.
At that time, I came across this extraordinary building that housed an original cinema. The building fitted perfectly with my philosophy and my next plan — to restore it to its former glory. Originally, it was a 70mm panoramic film theatre with capacity for 550 seats, and it first opened in 1971. When I found it, it was in bad shape and had a leaking roof with water seeping into the building. Although it was derelict, I decided to buy it and take on a full restoration. I contacted the owner, with a determination to preserve the 70mm technology and heritage it featured and to save the site from bankruptcy and destruction. I proposed that the entire complex and the equipment it contained should be transferred to my ownership. Adapting and adopting my experience in the neon business and having analysed and assessed the installation, I formulated a business plan and drew up a budget for a complete restoration and the whole enterprise was supported by the Elektroneon company.
I was deeply into in neon signs at the time and one of my most important clients was Tesco supermarkets in Great Britain. I had won an exclusive contract with them and I fought hard to manage the neon business at the same time as supervising the restoration of the cinema. It finally opened under the aegis of Elektroneon, but initially kept its original name of Cinema Panorama. To emphasize added services such as a pizzeria and a restaurant, the current name was adopted: “Centrum Panorama”. The paramount factor in the decision to acquire the Centrum Panorama was a strong desire and curatorial ambition to revive and celebrate 70mm film technology. Because of the enormous structural problems of this building, we were obliged to postpone the project, but I was determined from the outset to achieve the goal and to see the project through.
The cinema has been open since 2005, with 70mm screenings since 2008, but there was a further issue — I decided to open a fully licensed restaurant in the complex and applying for a licence was not easy. It was clear from the start that operating a cinema alone would not make it a going concern. It had to be a cinema plus restaurant to be viable. The restaurant subsidises the cinema, which attracts clientele. A cinema alone couldn’t make a profit here.
The year 2010 was a great one — transfer of ownership was completed and we acquired the second part of the existing complex, originally a hotel with a dance hall. The restaurant had not been an original part of the complex but it now occupies the original foyer of the cinema. The area above that was the hotel and ballroom. To begin with, the building was in such a state we had to construct an all-new roof — and wait for better times to continue the restoration.
ML: You clearly see this as a cultural site to be preserved?
PN: Exactly. The Centrum Panorama is still undergoing renovation and as part of that development, we have recently installed an impressive screen from Harkness. Now visitors will see panoramic films on a 135m2 curved screen which has a chord, or depth, of 1.8m. Before that we updated the optical system of our projectors featuring an upgraded high-fidelity cinema sound system, especially for magnetic sources of sound. This allowed for interoperability between original and new digital cinema projectors.
ML: And you have a world-class collection of rare and vintage projectors that outclasses the Cinematheque Francaise, too?
PN: We do. The next step in our development philosophy will be to install an outdoor cinema for the summer season on newly acquired land adjoining this site. Ideally, we would hope to feature 70mm projection for our outdoor shows.
ML: So, a lot in the offing. What hopes for the future?
PN: There is space here to develop a museum of cinema technology and to revive one of the functions of this building as a hotel. It is a longer-term aspiration — finance is never easy. The original intention was to establish financial stability and a foundation for a viable enterprise — but bear in mind none of this would be possible if the key purpose had been anything other than conservation of an important cinema.