Avalon Theatre rises from the ashes

AB Moosa Junior, the 37-year-old
managing director of the Avalon Group
and the third generation of his family to
head South Africa’s oldest cinema and
entertainment company.
(Image: Avalon Group)

MEDIA CONTACTS
• Avalon Group
Head office: + 27 31 368 2007 or +27 31 328 3349
Johannesburg: +27 11 852 5006/7
Pietermaritzburg: +27 33 342 7007
Centurion: +27 12 656 1007
info@avalon-group.co.za

Andy Stead

Seventy-one years of independent South African cinema is to be celebrated in October 2010 when the Moosa family’s Avalon Group, once almost destroyed by apartheid, opens a new luxury Cine Centre in the upmarket Killarney Mall in Johannesburg.

South Africa has a rich history of cinema stretching back almost 100 years, and early projection devices were shown on the Johannesburg goldfields as early as 1896. The first cinema newsreels ever released were filmed at the front during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902, and the country’s first narrative film was The Kimberley Diamond Robbery, made in 1910 by Springbok Films.

In Durban during the 1920s a young man named Aboobaker – or “AB” – Moosa fell in love with the cinema, and longed to have a theatre of his own where he could watch the movies he wanted for free. In 1939, at age 37, his dream was realised when he and Abdulla Kajee co-founded the Avalon Theatre in Durban’s Victoria Street.

The theatre was a huge success, catering largely for the South African Indian community. Moosa built on this success by becoming one of the first to bring early Bollywood movies to South Africa, and by establishing a distribution agreement with 20th Century Fox. Now in its 71st year, this is the world’s longest uninterrupted partnership with the Hollywood giant.

The business boomed, and AB began opening theatres elsewhere in South Africa – in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Kimberley, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth and Paarl.

“My father had an uncanny eye for property,” Moosa Moosa, AB’s third son, told Property Magazine. “When he spotted a new site for a cinema, he always snapped it up.” Moosa took over the business after his father’s death in the 1960s, and bought it up outright from his brothers in the 1980s.

In its heyday the Avalon Group operated 18 cinemas across the country, making up over 10% of the market share at the time.

But AB soon fell foul of apartheid legislation and its Group Areas Act.

“When the Nats [National Party government] began their expropriation process, we felt completely violated,” Moosa told Property. “The notice was delivered by a condescending official who was determined to let you know who was boss.

“You were given 90 days notice to attempt to sell the property at its market value – of course this was impossible. The potential purchaser wouldn’t offer a fair price, because he knew you were cornered. He’d offer something ridiculous, and if you declined, the government would offer only 80% of that.”

In 1964, at the age of 21, Moosa witnessed his father’s humiliation at their family’s eviction from their grand colonial home on the corner of Goble and Windmere Roads in Durban under the Group Areas Act. As Indians, they were no longer allowed to live in what had been declared a whites-only area.

AB Moosa did not survive either the eviction or what Moosa refers to as the “legislated theft” of his assets. The Group Areas Act and Reservation of Separate Amenities Act began to destroy AB’s empire.

In this darkest time Moosa Moosa took on sole ownership of Avalon and ran only one cinema in Durban. “We might not even have retained that, but the Grey Street complex was in a so-called ‘Indian’ area,” Moosa says. “In effect, it was frozen terrain – the government hadn’t quite made up its mind about it.”

In the 1990s apartheid came to an end, and the Avalon Group’s fortunes began to revive. Around that time Moosa was joined in the business by his only son, AB Junior, who was named after his grandfather. AB Junior had just left school and decided to work alongside his father for, in his own words, a “love of the cinema and of the entertainment business as a whole”.

“When I joined we were down to one cinema screen,” he says. “However, my father and myself took it upon ourselves to transform the South African cinema landscape”.

His passion was not only to rebuild Avalon, but also to restore the family’s rightful place in the industry and put right the historical wrongs of the past.

“The challenge was formidable,” AB Junior says. “We brought an action against the dominant cinema group, and we won. We paved the way for the resurgence of the Avalon name.”

With over 50 years in the industry, Moosa Moosa is the longest serving cinema executive in South Africa and among the longest serving in the world.

In 1997 he appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission business hearings to give evidence on the abuses inflicted by the apartheid system on African, coloured and Indian businesses, and in 1998 was invited to appear before the portfolio committee in parliament to make representations in relation to the new Competition Bill.

In 2007 Moosa was given a South African Film and Television Industry lifetime achievement award. The Avalon Group is now the oldest and third-largest cinema operating company in South Africa, after Ster-Kinekor and Nu Metro, and the leader in distributing increasingly popular Bollywood movies.

AB Junior continues in the footsteps of his distinguished family, and is now managing director of the Avalon Group. “When your business is also a passion you are doing what you really want to do, so the flow is reasonably easy,” he says.

AB Junior founded the movie production arm of the business, Avalon Productions, and was a line producer on the Bollywood blockbuster Dhoom 2, which was partly filmed in South Africa. The movie has gone on to become the highest-grossing Bollywood production of all time, earning more that US$40-million (R300-million). In 2007, the year his father was given a lifetime achievement award by the industry, AB Junior was named South African Entrepreneur of the Year.

And now, in 2010, Avalon’s most ambitious project to date comes to fruition at the Killarney Mall shopping centre in Johannesburg’s affluent northern suburbs. Opening in October, the new Cine Centre will be a specialised luxury cinema complex featuring the latest Hollywood and Bollywood blockbusters. The centre will have five screens, each featuring the latest 3D and digital projection hardware, as well as state-of-the-art Dolby Digital surround sound.

Interestingly, the suburb of Killarney was the centre of the Johannesburg film industry in the early 1900s, and the land now occupied by the Killarney Mall was once the site of film studios and a film laboratory.

“All five cinemas will offer cutting-edge viewing technology including 3D,” says Debra Sharnock, centre manager of Killarney Mall. “A fully digital 3D cinema complex is a first for the South African cinema industry, demonstrating the extraordinary quality that movie-goers can expect at Johannesburg’s newest cinema development.”

A highlight of the Cine Centre will be a luxurious 64-seat gold-class theatre available for hire.

“Killarney Mall is the ideal venue for our new Cine Centre, with its long-standing reputation as one of the city’s leading centres,” says AB Junior. “The Avalon Group is confident that our new venture at Killarney Mall will further enhance our stature as leaders in our industry.”

Source: Gauteng Film Commission