Films in the Southern Highlands (FISH) was launched in 1994. It has over 400 members and exhibits eleven films a year. Except in January, each month there are two showings for each film, one on Sunday morning and the second on the following Tuesday evening.
FISH’s opening show was Jim Jamusch’s “Night on Earth” on Tuesday 30 August 1994. This first event was a surprising success. Around 100 people packed into the small cinema at the Empire and helped to launch our film group. From its inception, FISH has shown “Art House” movies that are not exhibited outside Sydney, although from time to time this has been varied and may well be in the future. A majority of that original audience was composed of subscribers to the Travelling Film Festival which had been coming to Bowral since 1974.
Much of the credit for the initial success of this venture lies with the then new proprietor of the Empire Cinema. Richard Ruhfus was looking to expand the type of audiences that came regularly to the Empire and so, in July 1994, he gathered together an interested group of people at “Epicure” cafe and offered them the Empire free of charge once a month. To those for whom “Film Society” meant struggling with 16mm projectors in school halls, this was a wonderful offer and it created the conditions and enthusiasm that proved so successful in the following years.
There were about ten people at that original meeting. A committee was formed and Alan Purdom volunteered to design the Logo that is now so familiar. To finance the venture, those at the meeting all donated twenty dollars and FISH was launched. The original committee was Chris Topp President, Barb Vickery Treasurer, Robert Graham and Judy Mylonas Programming, Elizabeth Rogers Secretary, Shayne Mortimer and Anne Steven.
After “Night On Earth”, FISH was immediately financial. Membership numbers rewarded Richard’s original faith in the idea. Through the ’90s, membership was always between 100 and 200 and has climbed to the present figure of over 400 with the move by Greg and Norma Tome to issue yearly membership passes, replacing the cumbersome ticketing process and three film seasons that were used previously. At that first event, we had announced that a three film season would be $20 and that our target for membership would be around 40 subscriptions!
With the passing of time, an increase in membership and the change of committee members, the structure and operation of the committee and the society have developed. The informal approach that characterised our earlier administration was reformed by Greg Tome who took us through incorporation; the affairs of FISH are now conducted at formal monthly committee meetings.
Three Presidents, Robin Knowles, Annette Ameneiro and Ross Armfield, continued to refine the procedures with the help of the committee. The committee’s work includes the annual membership renewal – the single most onerous task – sending monthly newsletters and, its most important function, the selection of films. Originally, this role was undertaken by Robert Graham and Judy Mylonas. Judy’s regular attendance at the Sydney Film Festival and Robert’s English teaching background provided us with splendid programming. In more recent times, the whole committee has determined the selection guided by principles of quality, highly recommended movies, and varying the genres and countries of origin. With input from other committee members, Liz Stevenson acts as the collector of reviews and all committee members do their own research in the process of selection.
The success of FISH is seen in the move to two screenings. The original time offered by Richard was 8.30pm on a Tuesday once a month. As membership grew in the early 2000s, the committee became aware that there were more members than seats in Cinema 1 at the Empire. The initial response was to restrict membership and establish a waiting list. In 2004, Richard approved a second screening at 10.00am on a Sunday. This has been very successful, with many members preferring the Sunday screening. The committee was then able to allow the membership to grow. In August 2010, the Tuesday time was changed to 8.00pm, and later to 8.15pm, with both screenings in a refurbished Cinema 1.
At the inaugural meeting, it was decided to use a Federation of Film Societies’ stock constitution which was later replaced when FISH incorporated. In both constitutions, our pre-eminent role as a Film Group was associated with a broader role of contributor to the local community. Over the years, FISH has been the proud contributor to a number of community projects, the Walkway to the Empire, seating in the Mittagong Community Theatre, special film showings for senior citizens, a donation to Volunteering Wingecarribee, support for the Travelling Film Festival and support for the Sydney Film Festival.
Finally, FISH has always had a warm and productive association with the Empire Cinema and Richard Ruhfus, our patron. To watch the growth and development of the Empire over the past decade has been a pleasure and it is a privilege for the members of our society to be treated in such a welcoming and professional manner.