With cinema in his blood the owner of the Pantheon in Nicosia is trying to ensure his concern changes with the times. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man driven to see the human side of everything
The story of George Papageorgiou is the story of a building, which his family has owned since the 50s. It’s a story of persistence – and a kind of philosophical detachment – in the face of adversity. It’s a story of an industry that’s changing, and may even be dying. It’s a story of a few disappointments, some mistakes made, and a story of bad (or unfortunate) timing. “Timing,” he admits, “is a thing that’s always stalked me throughout my life. Always.”
The building is on Diagorou Street in central Nicosia. If you wanted to describe its location you might say it’s ‘opposite TGI Friday’s’ – which is ironic because Friday’s only moved to this location to be opposite the building, back in the 90s when the Pantheon Cinema was selling 500 tickets a day (and once sold 5,000 tickets in a three-day weekend, showing the execrable live-action version of 101 Dalmatians). The five-storey building, as it is today, was erected in the late 1970s; before that, the place was an open-air cinema – also called the Pantheon, owned by George’s father who used to be in partnership with Napoleon Sarris, father of Michalis Sarris who was Minister of Finance during the 2013 haircut.
The connection is ironic – because it was the haircut (along with the emergence of the Kings Avenue Mall) that finally put paid to George’s most ambitious project: Planet Adventure in Paphos, what he calls “a really beautiful entertainment centre” with three restaurants, two cafeterias, a bowling alley, a 1,800m² kids’ play area and (above all) seven state-of-the-art cinemas. He built it with childhood friend Marios Herodotou, who owns the Rio in Limassol, heading to Paphos which was then virgin territory with a booming population of expats: “I remember when we showed Skyfall, there were British couples who came dressed in tuxedos and frocks and formal gowns. They went to the restaurant, ordered a martini each – shaken, not stirred – then they went upstairs to watch James Bond. An evening out”. The project thrived for a couple of years, but couldn’t survive in a shrunken economy; it closed down in 2014. George gives a rueful shrug. “OK, unfortunately it’s another of the unexpected things Life throws at you”.
Planet Adventure was a one-off. George, it should be noted, is not in the mall business, or even the entertainment-centre business; he’s in the film business – but the business is changing, and indeed films are changing. “When you get the head of a studio, like Fox – I’m talking about Jim Gianopulos, a Greek-American – saying ‘We’ve got the rights for this franchise, or that franchise’… re koumbare, are you selling hamburgers and milkshakes?” He shakes his head in dismay: “Everything’s just for commercial reasons now, to sell the movie. None of the actors have the status that a Paul Newman used to have, a Robert Redford, a Marlon Brando, a Jimmy Stewart, a John Wayne”. Everything is noise and sound, cinematic shock-and-awe, special effects and commercial gimmicks. “And it’s the same with the people we do business with nowadays”. Distributors used to be owned by “film families” – but now they’re run by lawyers, accountants, financial controllers, PR people.
When he speaks of “film families”, he may be thinking of his own (though it’s unlikely that his children, aged 13 and 8, will follow in the family business). George’s grandfather, also named George, ran the Ireon Cinema in Famagusta – a 1,200-seat behemoth with an even bigger open-air cinema attached. Those years, from the 1940s to the Turkish invasion, were the age of the movie palace: the open-air Pantheon – now the building on Diagorou Street – was a thing of beauty, with opera boxes where the great and good could look down on the Nicosia plebs. “It was like a miniature version, in our own way, of La Scala in Milano.” As the oldest of three, George’s own fate was sealed: since his mid-20s (he’s now 48) he’s been running the building on Diagorou, first with one screen, then three, then – for the past few years – without any cinemas at all, just some offices and a theatre company.
The main Pantheon screen is still there, of course, indeed it’s now seeing some use after years of inactivity (more on this later) – and that’s where we meet, in the old cinema foyer on a rather chilly Saturday morning. Given his love of old movie stars, it’s ironic that the one he most resembles is a TV character – but it’s true: with his bear-like gait, pouchy face and watchful, reserved expression, there’s an unmistakable trace of a kinder gentler Tony Soprano. He’s been married for 14 years (his wife is a PE teacher), and his greying beard testifies to the fact that he’s turning 50 in a couple of years – but age, like most things, doesn’t seem to faze him. “Not at all,” he replies when I ask if he thinks about it. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I always say that life is like the four seasons. Every season has its good points, you just have to be a bit philosophical and enjoy them”.
Another man might be less philosophical, or at least might find more to resent – not about getting older per se, but about the way his life has panned out. After all, even the first of his four seasons – his spring, his childhood – wasn’t the usual carefree romp and proverbial skipping through meadows. The family came from Famagusta, and of course were uprooted by the invasion. Their plan was to emigrate to the UK – and, since George had just finished primary school, he was sent to boarding school in Slough, outside London, as a kind of advance party, to await his parents and siblings. The plan then changed, however, and they opted to stay in Limassol – but his parents preferred to let him finish his education in the UK, keeping him at boarding school for six years (1979-85) away from the rest of the family.
The school was called LVS, the Licensed Victuallers’ School, originally founded for the children of publicans (its houses are named after breweries). This year was the 30-year reunion, says George, and he went back to see his old classmates and headmaster, “a very fine gentleman called Mr Bland”. So it sounds like he had a good time, I suggest – and his only reply is a long silence. “At the time, it was hard,” he replies at last.
It was hard growing up without your family – especially, perhaps, when the rest of the family was still together. It may be significant that one of his best friends was a rather troubled boy who felt like an outsider in his own family – an adopted child whose parents, having thought themselves infertile, succeeded in having a child of their own soon after adopting him. This boy didn’t go to the reunion, having suffered a nervous breakdown in his early 20s due, in large part, to the abuse he’d endured at school. “There was a lot of bullying,” says George noncommittally. “Even by the standards of the time”. The British kids clashed with the foreigners, the day pupils clashed with the boarders, their school battled rival schools. The early 80s were a tough time in England; George and his schoolmates were only allowed into Slough in twos and threes, for fear of being attacked by local gangs. “Trouble would flare up for any reason, whether important or trivial,” he recalls of boarding-school life. “Things changed from one day to the next. Maybe it was a question of survival – but it really and truly builds character. You either come out of it really strong, or else you carry baggage all your life.”
George himself was a small kid, “but I had a temper”. By and large, the bullies left him alone, but the constant state of war made him tired; he took solace in sports, horse riding (his most treasured memory is of pony trekking in the beautiful Welsh hills around Abergavenny) and, to some extent, movies: “When you’re born into the business, it never leaves you!”. At 20, he had notions of studying Film Production in the US, maybe making documentaries (he’s always loved “the human side of Cinema”) – but it didn’t happen. His parents couldn’t afford to send all three siblings to university, so his brother and sister – who’d stayed in Cyprus while he was stuck in the UK getting a ‘superior’ education – went abroad to study, while George himself was assigned to the Pantheon and told to get on with it.
I scan his face, looking for resentment; I don’t see any – yet so much of what he’s told me might legitimately offer grounds for feeling hard-done-by. Having to fend for himself in a strange and difficult place for six years while his siblings were allowed to be normal teenagers. Coming back from exile only to be thrust into the family business, his creative dreams cast aside (he’s screened hundreds of other people’s films, but never did make his own). Then the second season of his life – his summer – with its various disappointments. The cinema business declined in Cyprus, ending as a multiplex monopoly aimed at undiscriminating teens (the Pantheon closed in the mid-00s). An attempt to diversify by opening a printing business was a fiasco, George unwisely placing his trust in a close family friend who ultimately proved unreliable and fled the country, leaving a mass of debts. And of course there was Planet Adventure, his biggest creative project, and another inglorious ending.
“It’s all part of life’s experiences,” he tells me, sipping a coffee in the chill of the empty foyer. Yes, but surely he hasn’t always been so philosophical? Surely he’s been angered by things going wrong, at some point?
“You know, for better or worse,” he says ruminatively, “I’ve always applied a philosophy that says you should always take responsibility for your actions. You can’t go blaming other people just because you have problems”. Taking over the cinema was “a conscious decision,” he insists, and something he wanted to do, irrespective of family pressure. The Paphos venture was “a fantastic creation” which he doesn’t regret, despite its ultimate failure.
Most importantly, perhaps, looking back in anger is a very poor substitute for living in the present. Even now, in whatever season he finds himself (late summer? early autumn?), George Papageorgiou isn’t short of ideas – and the Pantheon has now re-opened, more or less, the building on Diagorou once again showing films, though only as part of a larger strategy. Daily screenings are no longer worth it, he says; selling half-a-dozen tickets in a 400-seat cinema just isn’t viable. Instead he wants to host events, like a recent Back to the Future marathon, or three nights of a local documentary called Beloved Days, or “alternative content” like operas and concerts and sporting events. If he’s busy four nights a week – five at most – he’ll be happy, he says.
Times have changed, he’s trying to change with them. But he’s not yet ready to accept that films are franchises, and the way forward lies in expensive gimmicks; he’s still more attached to “the human side”, whether of Cinema or life in general. Years ago, around the time of Avatar, he attended a seminar in Amsterdam where James Cameron himself – that film’s mega-successful director – talked up the future of 3D; sometimes, however, in searching for new ways to impress, we end up forgetting “simplicity, the human side,” notes George wistfully. “That’s what’s going to bring someone to the cinema. The personal touch – making a person feel welcome, saying ‘Hello my friend, how are you, welcome’.
“Man is what gives substance to everything,” he intones, full of gravitas. “To anything, whatever you do. Man is what gives life, and direction, and character and identity… Look, these things are lifeless,” he adds. “Without human beings it’s all dead, soulless, there’s nothing. It’s just walls,” says George dismissively – and gestures around him, at the building that’s marked his whole life.