By Megan Brink and Carla Visagie
There is no doubt that for the majority of Stellenbosch students and townspeople Pulp Cinema is a flagship association with the Neelsie Student Centre, a cornerstone of the community. However, the entertainment hotspot is facing closure, as their rental contract with Stellenbosch University (SU) will reach its end on 31 December 2020.
Werner de Swardt, owner of Pulp Cinema, received a lawyer’s letter on 26October from Cluver Markotter Attorneys ordering that he vacate the premises on 31 December 2020 in accordance with the end of a two year and six months fixed rental agreement between Pulp Cinema and SU. This lease came into fruition on 1 July 2016 and was renewed in June 2018 to extend to 31 December 2020. The lawyers’ letter, which was seen by Die Matie, instructed the following:
“You shall, on the expiration date, surrender the premises in the same good order and condition as the premises were on the commencement date of the lease agreement” and “remove all your fixtures from the premises and also, to the extent required by our client (following an inspection of the premises by our client, which inspection will be arranged with you during November 2020) any other alterations, additions, improvements and installations by, or before, Thursday 31 December 2020.”
According to Martin Viljoen, SU Media Manager, “Both parties agreed that Pulp Cinema would not continue operating after the expiry of the lease agreement, either at December 2018 or, if the tenant extended, then in December 2020. The lease agreement reaches its natural end as was agreed between the parties at the conclusion of the lease agreement, in line with each party’s true, original intentions.”
The reason for the change in utility of space, according to Viljoen, is that “venue facilities and lecture theatres are in huge demand on campus”.
“An improved utility of the theatre complex as a general venue to allow for many different usages and functions will better service all students instead of the exclusive usage of the facility by one society. The venue model also saves SU the expenditure of spending money on hiring facilities when it has a facility. Over time, we are convinced that the short-term leasing model will be sustainable, cater for more uses and more positively impact the mix of the student centre and the services it provides for all,” Viljoen says.
Viljoen added that the space rented by Pulp Cinema was “the subject of improved utility (a change of usage that would cater for more students and activities) well before the lease with Pulp Cinema. For that reason, both Pulp and SU agreed that after the lease agreement ended, there would be no further renewal and the tenant would vacate the premises. SUNCOM would be able to initiate its original plans at that time and, importantly, Pulp agreed to this as acondition to their lease”.
According to Viljoen, the theatre space will be utilised by “the newly established Central Events and Conferencing Office (CECO), which is an innovative commercial undertaking to fulfil InnovUS and SUNCOM’s mandate of fifth stream income generation on behalf of SU”.
“[CECO has] the goal to act as a one stop shop to manage short-term rentals of SU facilities. This function includes external short-term facility rentals, maximising the use of its facilities for internal activity and stimulating conferencing activity at SU,” Viljoen says.
According to Viljoen, “the CECO office will in future engage with all parties, Mr De Swardt included, for short term rental availability”.
“The future screening of films is therefore not affected, and he may continue to render a service to the students on campus – within the new structure. In other words, Pulp will still be able to use the Neelsie and the students’ film society does not have to be affected by the lease coming to an end,” Viljoen says.
In an email sent to De Swardt by InnovUS, Pulp was offered the “opportunity to use the theatres and continue to render [their] service… for two evenings a week, however, you [De Swardt] will be required to vacate the theatre space completely after each evening”.
According to De Swardt, he invested a lot to improve the condition of the Pulp Cinema when he started hiring it in 2011, and it was not easy an easy process to set up the infrastructure in Pulp.
“People only used the bathroom, there was nothing in here, the theatres weren’t operational, the seats were broken, one of the screens [was] slashed, no sound, no audio, no video, nothing like that. Just to make a theatre audio-video friendly, is going to cost them in excess of a million rand, you can’t just plug a projector in there to fill up an 8 meter screen,” De Swardt said.
According to Annika Hohbach, the current chairperson of the Pulp Film Society, the society has “no way of existing” without unlimited access to the theatre and De Swardt’s assistance.
She continued to explain that she does not believe Pulp Society will survive if the cinema closes, “the movies being [shown] is what keeps this society going and what keeps the members coming. The movies that Werner is showing are incredible. We are all students and we can’t run something like that. We are in need of this cinema for the society’s survival.”
This is not the first time De Swardt faces the end of his rental contract with SU. As the cinema is rented on a month-to-month basis, De Swardt alleges that there was always a constant threat of losing the contract because the dramatic escalation in rent could not be met.
As reported by Die Matie on 22 October 2014, the basis of this eviction was rooted in the cinema not accepting the 400% increase in rent, put forward by Gary Howell, Manager: Maties Letting Office, that would see De Swardt jump from R12 000 per month to R95 000 per month.
According to De Swardt, if the Cinema could have been seen as “an eyesore”, he “would be the first one to call it a day”, but Pulp Cinema is a “successful tenant”.
“Any mall environment, centre environment or commercial environment, will never ever kick out a successful tenant, or not renew their contract if they were successful and contributing to the environment. It is impossible for me to give up on something this successful that creates so much joy and creates so much income for the University, and that people are dependent on,” De Swardt says.
According to De Swardt, he made an alternative offer to the University to host conferences for free for the University, in exchange for having screenings every day. De Swardt says that Pulp Cinema is already accustomed to organising events and conferences for SU as they host four or five conference events a week during term.
On top of this offer of free use of the space, De Swardt says that Pulp Cinema committed that the University could use; their staff for any technical needs, their PowerPoint facilities, their projectors and audio equipment, as well as full access to their cordless mics, background screens, air conditioning, coffee stand and their bar.
Yet, SU, in the name of CECO, has opted rather to terminate the lease and fork out over a million rand to make the theatre audio-video friendly. As well as a high rental income, they are willing to give up the offer of Pulp Cinema to continue hosting all events and conferences for free and in the words of De Swardt, “willing to kill Pulp Cinema”.
This left De Swardt questioning, “If it’s the University’s true intention to create a conferencing venue, why not let [Pulp] do it for them? At no extra cost?”
The implications of this decision are endless – besides the farewell to the campus-wide love of Pulp popcorn and the very needed coffee and occasional booze fix, De Swardt employs 12 staff who are all the sole breadwinners for their families. According to De Swardt, he and his family rely on the cinema for income, the Toyota US Woordfees Filmfees relies on the Cinema space, and the fate of Pulp Society hangs in the balance.
While SU has assured that they will accommodate Pulp Film Society, the most popular and biggest of all 54 societies on campus with a membership of between 2000 and 3000 students that grows by 20-25% annually, according to Hohbach, the society has not been offered an alternative venue. Neither have arrangements been made with them about the new developments.
According to Viljoen, “the businesses in the Neelsie will benefit from the change in usage of the theatre complex whereas at present, they do not benefit much”.
A tenant in the Neelsie who chose to remain anonymous, describes Pulp Cinema as “an anchor tenant”.
“The older people started coming in [to the Neelsie] because of Pulp Cinema. Specifically on the second floor, everybody [all tenants] benefit from Pulp, because they hang around if they watch a screening. Pulp is the only benefit of the Neelsie, because it pulls people in. When we walk home in the evenings, townspeople walk in here, and I think restaurants can stay open because of the foot flow that Pulp Cinema brings,” the tenant says.
Christine Pietersen, rental agent at Neelsie Eiendomme and avid supporter of Pulp Cinema, says that “Pulp Cinema not only attracts students, but also townspeople, whoever enters the centre sees us [Neelsie Eiendomme]” and it will be a very sad day when Pulp Cinema closes.”
“Since Pulp opened their doors in 2011, I have been a member. What I enjoy most of the cinema is that they really show nice movies and often new movies or old movies that you cannot see anywhere else. Pulp is also very beneficial for the community, I even see groups from the old age home often going to Pulp. They have also started to show movies for children over the holidays, so they do not only serve the student body, but the whole community,” Pietersen says.