South Africa Theater Chain Wins Desegregation Battle

After years of enduring separate but hardly equal facilities, South Africans now all see the same movies in the same theaters.

Ster-Kinekor, that country's dominant film exhibition and distribution company, announced during the current American Film Market in Beverly Hills that every one of its 185 theaters is now open to all races, bringing to an end the company's protracted legal battle with the Pretoria government.

"It took every bit of log-rolling and foot-slogging we could manage in Pretoria," said David Isaacs, Ster-Kinekor's director of marketing, who was in Los Angeles for AFM. "Every other entertainment venue in South Africa had been open for years, but the cinemas were something different, for some reason. Now that's all over with."

One of the reasons it took so long for the movie theaters, Isaacs said, is that the national government passed on the authority to integrate the theaters to local governments--many of whom are more loyal to the apartheid policy than is the central government in Pretoria.

Only after Ster-Kinekor briefly shut down its theaters in Krugersdorp--a Pretoria suburb--and threatened to do the same to the 20 or so theaters in Pretoria itself did the Pretoria City Council relent and allow all races into all its theaters. The council did so informally sometime in mid-February, and formally on Feb. 26--the opening date of the American Film Market.

"We were also working for integration under some pressure from film companies here in the States," added Isaacs. "After (Columbia Pictures Chairman David) Puttnam said he would not send pictures to South Africa unless all races were admitted equally, it rather started the ball rolling over here. We had already started to make the big push towards integration earlier--about two years ago--but once all the American companies began pressuring both us and the Pretoria government, it got a little easier."

Isaacs said he doesn't see any immediate change in cinema censoring habits by the government, but added that "there never really was much that was suppressed by the government in Pretoria. We have an art-house circuit too, you know. But the thing was, only whites could see the majority of these films. That is no longer the case. Whether that changes demand patterns in our country remains to be seen."

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