This independent movie theater in downtown Johannesburg is bringing back the glory days of cinema

Come see for yourself
Come see for yourself
Image: The Bioscope
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Soon after its invention in the late 19th century, the bioscope became so popular it was synonymous with cinema. Even though the technology has long since become obsolete, we still use the flickering projector as a sort of mascot for the film industry.

In Johannesburg, a city not much older than the bioscope itself, going to the “bioscope” used to mean dressing up for the cinemas housed in the art deco buildings that characterize the inner-city. Then, a trip to the movies included 30-second films, news reels, variety shows and eventually feature length films.

In the 1990s, Johannesburg’s inner-city decayed, and its old-world cinemas shuttered. A mall culture developed in its place, bringing shoppers to vast complexes to see movies at the big cinema chains housed inside of them.

Johannesburg’s inner-city is slowly reviving as citizens and investors try to reclaim old skyscrapers. As people venture downtown for a night out, The Bioscope has returned to offer them a unique cinematic experience. As one of few independent cinemas in South Africa, The Bioscope features foreign films, local and international documentaries, and silver screen classics almost weekly. While the cinema uses new technology, its name is an homage to the old-world experience aimed at a new generation of Johannesburgers.

The Bioscope in downtown Johannesburg uses tech to create an old-world cinema experience
Place of light.
Image: The Bioscope

Most screenings come with a pizza and craft beer special from the adjacent bar, but a ticket to classic kung-fu film nights comes with a box of noodles from a local Asian restaurant. If you’re lucky enough to get a ticket before its sold out, you can watch a silent film accompanied by a live score performed by South Africa’s jazz and classical greats.

Since opening its doors in 2010, the 62-seat cinema has become a mainstay in the Maboneng (“place of light” in seTswana) precinct. By trying to share his love of cinema, co-founder Russell Grant has influenced Johannesburg’s nightlife. And, as he tells Quartz, being able to share ideas and events through technology has strengthened his business. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

In terms of technology, what’s the big thing you know today that you wished you knew when you started?

I sometimes feel it’s the opposite for me. Sometimes it feels like I was more on top [of new tech] and willing to learn when I started, and less enthusiastic to engage now after all these years.

Which tech giant has had the biggest impact on your business?

It will have to be Facebook. Our cinema is screening events night after night, and having Facebook events out there for each film is the bedrock of our marketing.

It’s not the be-all-and-end-all, but we’ve occasionally forgotten to [post Facebook events], and can tell some kind of difference.

And then, when it comes to inner-workings, something as simple as Google Docs and Google Drive have kept the teamwork together. I could not imagine trying to plan our schedule without a shared calendar.

What technology or tech service, that is not a giant company like Google or Apple, do you find is most useful in running your business?

I can’t say we’ve ever had something significant. Perhaps some smaller applications like VLC  [Editor’s note: the open-source cross-platform media player] and a site like WeTransfer [the cloud-based file-sharing platform] to move files and screen files for the cinema.

From a technology standpoint, what can’t you do, that you think you should be able to?

At this point, it feels like we’ve got all our bases covered. Nothing beats face-to-face interaction with customers and a physical shared experience. We still believe that people and genuine word-of-mouth marketing are our biggest strengths.

What’s the newest competitive threat?

You could say that the increase in streaming services has taken many people away from coming into actual cinemas, and I suppose thats true to a point for many cinemas. But The Bioscope has always been trying to create experiences you can’t ever get on your couch, and ones you want to do with many other people. So it’s certainly not putting us out of business! Just pushing us to remain as unique as possible!