From Iceland — Here’s Looking At You, Paradise: The Uncertain Fate Of Bíó Paradís

Here’s Looking At You, Paradise: The Uncertain Fate Of Bíó Paradís

Here’s Looking At You, Paradise: The Uncertain Fate Of Bíó Paradís

Published March 6, 2020

Photo by
Rut Sigurðardóttir

Bíó Paradís, an arthouse cinema and Reykjavík cultural institution since 2010, now faces the very real possibility of shuttering its doors for good. Cinema manager Hrönn Sveinsdóttir explains why Bíó Paradís matters, and how it can be saved.

For a long time, if you wanted to see a film in Iceland, you would be relegated to catching one of five blockbusters rotating through any of the larger cinemas on the outskirts of town. Arthouse and indie flicks could be enjoyed only in the comfort of your own home. There was nowhere to gather with others with the same weird tastes as you to enjoy a good film, least of all downtown.

All that changed in 2010, when Bíó Paradís opened its doors on Hverfisgata. Since then, it has not only served as an arthouse cinema; it has been a cultural centre, hosting such events as Polish Film Night, the French Film Festival, the Stockfish Film Festival, the Reykjavík International Film Festival and more, and has even endeared locals as a place to catch a drink at the start of the night.

So when news broke on January 30th that Bíó Paradís will be closing on May 1st—largely due to the property owners wanting to raise the rent by roughly 300%—it sparked both grief and outrage in the public at large, with everyone asking the same question: how can we save Bíó Paradís?

From short film to Miss Iceland to the US Embassy

“I started making music videos and short films as a teenager, with my brother,” cinema manager Hrönn Sveinsdóttir tells us. “We were a whole scene of teenagers who would compete in short film days. This was such a normal thing to do [in the mid 90s]. I’m from the VHS generation and life was all about video. One of the things that happens in those days is that everything becomes digital.”

“This is not just about rooms to screen films in. It’s much more than that. It’s this social space, this community.”

This led to Hrönn’s foray into the national broadcasting network RÚV, running a show on youth culture and the music scene with a DIY approach that would end up setting a trend picked up by the now-defunct television station Skjár1. However, it was the Miss Iceland competition in 2000 that served as the unlikely inspiration for Hrönn to make her first feature-length film.

“I saw this ad [for the competition] that was like ‘over 165cm, no more than this many kilos, no child, no husband,’” she recalls. “That’s creepy. Yet on their website they had this log line about ‘we want to emphasise the integrity and ambition of the modern woman’ but they have these requirements? Total paradox.”

So Hrönn joined the competition, filming every step of the way. The resulting documentary, Í skóm drekans (‘In the shoes of the dragon’), co-directed and edited by her brother Árni Sveinsson, kicked off a lawsuit which nearly made it to the Supreme Court—a landmark case that is still taught in law school today.

Shortly thereafter, Hrönn moved to New York, where she met her husband Steve, and studied film and politics at Brooklyn College. In 2007, they moved back to Iceland, and she began working in protocol at the US embassy in 2008.

“My first job was to welcome Condoleeza Rice, and I’m not the most formal person you’ll ever meet,” Hrönn says. “So I’m still surprised they hired me, but I was able to impress them with my knowledge of American culture and being somewhat familiar with the media environment in Iceland.”

The job, however, was not exactly fulfilling. “I began asking myself where I’d gone wrong in life, because I’d always been creative, and suddenly I’m sitting in an office filling out forms and having meetings about absolutely nothing,” she recalls. But then, in 2011, she saw an ad for a managing director for Bíó Paradís. There, the adventure began.

A rocky start

The attraction to be a part of a place like Bíó Paradís was informed by Hrönn’s time in New York.

“You’re there to talk about the film with people, and that’s what the work here at Bíó Paradís is based on, this community.”

“You don’t understand what a luxury it is [to have good cinemas] until you move [to New York], and even though Iceland at the time had a vital music scene and interesting visual arts, cinema-wise it was just a complete wasteland,” Hrönn recalls. “It was just the same five blockbusters screening at all the cinemas. You were lucky if something was on at Háskólabíó. I really missed the whole concept of cinema culture, with these festivals, special screenings, the obscure and the cult.”

As exciting as the prospect was, there were challenges ahead.

“You don’t just open a cinema, open your DVD player and press Play,” Hrönn explains. In a nutshell: there are three distributors who each run their own cinemas. Each distributor has output contracts with Hollywood studios, and these cinemas trade films with one another. This made getting material very daunting, especially as 50% of ticket sales has to go to distributors.

“It was a lot of work for one person, and it was very hard to figure this out,” she says. “We didn’t have gear. We only had debt.”

It’s important to understand that Bíó Paradís is not an institution run by any one person. Rather, it is a non-profit organisation, owned and operated by the Professional Society of Filmmakers; FK, the filmmaker’s union; SÍK, the association of Icelandic producers; and the film director’s guild.

The turn-around

Things began to improve when Hilmar Sigurðasson, now the CEO of SagaFilm, became chair of the board, and began drafting plans for financing gear, acquiring better equipment and securing additional funding. It took some doing, but in the autumn of 2013, it struck Hrönn that , “Finally we’re a real cinema. But of course, it’s never smooth sailing. The balance of money and what we do has been really hard. As soon as one thing breaks down, we have to cut costs somewhere else to fix it.”

In addition to this, the combined total percentage of the subsidies that the state and the City of Reykjavík pays into Bíó Paradís only covers about 17% of the total cost. That said, there have been successes, too.

“What we do here, you can’t do at home, because it’s mostly about the social experience,” she says. “You want to go see a film that you probably can’t see anywhere else. You want to be with people—even if it’s a film you’ve seen many times, at [Bíó Paradís’] party screenings you want to see [a movie] with people who love the film, and scream at the screen and have a beer with your friends. Same with arthouse or documentary screenings. You’re there to talk about the film with people, and that’s what the work here at Bíó Paradís is based on, this community. And that’s why we’re becoming steadily more popular as the existential crisis in the blockbuster cinema is mounting in contrast.”

Clouds on the horizon

Despite a run of good years for the cinema, more turbulence lay ahead. “In 2013, we did a 7 year-long lease with the then-owner [of the building] at a reasonable rate,” Hrönn says. This helped, as any extra money made went into repairs and paying down debts.

When the property was acquired by new owners, Karl Mikli ehf., shortly thereafter, it was clear that they had their own ideas.

“The new owners made it very clear from the first day that they wanted to raise the rent, and they were quite disappointed when they found out that there was a lease agreement in place,” Hrönn says. At one point, they suggested leasing out the foyer for some other concept so the owners could make more money and not raise the rent on the cinema. In response, Hrönn made a presentation for the owners on what Bíó Paradís is and what they do. “I ended by saying ‘We’re a landmark. We intend to be here in 20, 30 years. We’re not some pizza place or some fad.’”

“This is not about them, though. They’re guys in business, what do we expect them to do? They want to make money. I guess they chose the wrong thing to make money off of, because a non-profit operation like Bíó Paradís can never generate enough money for anyone to make a profit off of renting them their space.”

“For all the problems with this building, you might see these big cinemas with all their fancy gear, but they don’t have this.”

Once the lease agreement with the building’s previous owners had run its course, Karl Mikli ehf. moved forward with their plans to raise the rent, which would endanger the future of the cinema. This sparked the public outcry in recent months to save Bíó Paradís—outcry that apparently even the new landlords have sat up and taken notice of.

“According to what I hear from the city and the ministries, they value this and they want this, and I am in full negotiations with them,” Hrönn says. “I’m still waiting to hear which ways they want to go. Even the owners have sensed that it is in their best interests to solve this matter. They’ve realised they’re dealing with a level of public outrage that they didn’t expect, and they really don’t want to be the bad guy here. We’ve had friendly talks. They want to solve this.”

What solutions are there?

Amongst the ideas that have arisen is the idea that Bíó Paradís could move to a new location. Hrönn is not exactly thrilled with the idea, nor does she think crowdfunding is a permanent solution.

“We’ve been building this place up, and the concept of being downtown, close to other cultural venues, in the midst of life downtown,” she says. “We’re in that mix of where people come and gather. Some people start their evenings here. That’s a big part about being a cinema. This is not just about rooms to screen films in. It’s much more than that. It’s this social space, this community. It’s gracious of them to offer [a new space for Bíó Paradís], but it’s not the kind of thing we’ve been building here.”

“Crowdfunding and such are nice,” she continues, “but it is limited. I don’t want to take people’s money and put it into little plasters here and there. We’ve been hanging on here for ten years now, and there are so many changes we need to make. We can’t even let disabled people into halls 2 and 3, which I find shameful, I cannot stress that enough.”

“Foreign journalists and people in the film industry love it, that they can walk into a cinema like this. So we’re not only the only arthouse near the Arctic Circle; we’re one of the best arthouses there are.”

For now, Hrönn’s feelings about the situation run the gamut from optimism to despair.

“I have every reason to be hopeful, but the reality is that I have been calling and notifying all our suppliers to stop everything on May 1st and that’s our plan still today,” she says. “It’s really weird, because that date gets closer every day. I go from being extremely hopeful in the morning to lying awake in bed at night and thinking ‘oh god, this is it.’”

Ultimately, Hrönn—like a great many Reykjavík residents, and people from around the world—remain committed to the survival of Bíó Paradís, and are hopeful the matter can be resolved.

“I get a lot of international guests, and people gasp over not just the handmade posters on the walls, but also the atmosphere,” she says. “Foreign journalists and people in the film industry love it, that they can walk into a cinema like this. So we’re not only the only arthouse near the Arctic Circle; we’re one of the best arthouses there are. We’re the only one in this isolated area of the planet, and we’ve been able to do that, so it’s insane that this would just shut down. For all the problems with this building, you might see these big cinemas with all their fancy gear, but they don’t have this.”

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