The 80-year-old Astor Theatre is one of the most-loved in the country, known as much for its double bills and cult programming as it is for the 1936 heritage-listed building itself. The Astor is as beautiful a place to watch a film as you’ll find, and after a protracted battle over its lease, it is back. The man in charge is Zak Hepburn.
For as long as he can remember, Hepburn knew his dream job would involve movies. It’s just that, originally, he thought he’d be making them.
“I was studying a Master of Arts and Cultural Management at Melbourne University when I realised I needed a job,” says Hepburn. “I started working front of house at the Palace Westgarth cinema in Northcote when it re-opened in 2006. I was really exposed to the day-in, day-out side of cinema programming, and as much as I loved making films, I loved showing people films.”
Hepburn introduced a late-night program to the Westgarth called Cult Vault, screening exploitation movies on 35-millimetre film. After finishing his degree, Hepburn moved up to national programming assistant at Palace Head Office, which led to programming streams across various film festivals operated by Palace Cinemas. In 2015, when Palace took over the struggling Astor after a heated public battle to keep the St. Kilda institution alive, Hepburn found himself uniquely placed to realise a local film buff’s fantasy, and stepped into the role of the Astor’s general manager.
Hepburn now looks after the everyday operations at the last-standing single-screen cinema in Melbourne. This includes choosing the films, running special events and even restocking the candy bar with its much-loved chunky choc tops.
Taking over a cinema with as strong a history as the Astor was a daunting challenge, but Hepburn never saw it as simply maintaining a legacy. “One of the main things I wanted to do was, not so much change the program, as put my own stamp on it."
While practical experience was crucial to landing the role, Hepburn says his experience at university was formative in teaching him how to navigate the sensitive demands of taking on a much-loved business. “The masters degree equipped me with two things,” Hepburn says. “It gave me a broader understanding of how films are read as text, and it opened up a range of peer and networking possibilities. You need to have a strong network of connections in this industry.”
Now, Hepburn is combining those relationships with his personal experience to help usher the cinema into a new era. “The only way a single-screen environment like the Astor can survive is as an event cinema,” says Hepburn. “It’s not just watching a film – it’s the experience you have, right down to the music and the lighting. The Astor is good at showing films in a way you can’t experience anywhere else.” For example, its sing-along sessions for films such as Grease and Frozen, at which 1000 people belt out the songs along with the stars on screen.
Duke, the Astor’s resident cat, is also a big part of the Astor. Brought in from the Lost Dogs Home as part of its program to place shelter cats and dogs in workplaces to help reduce stress, Duke has become a favourite with cinema-goers. “It was great to have Duke come on board and live here,” says Hepburn. “As well as increasing awareness of the Dogs Home program, he’s really happy.” It’s also Hepburn’s job to feed Duke.
Not many people get to play 70-millimetre film on a huge 19-metre-wide screen as their job. It’s an enviable role. For those interested in working in a similar position, Hepburn has some advice. “You just have to be passionate about what you do,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.”
This article was produced in partnership with The University of Melbourne.