When entering Nova Cinema for the first time, you might be startled by the building’s unique aesthetic. Some can’t help but let out a small squeal of surprise, others might timidly ask, "is it still under construction?". Although all traces and ornamentation of the previous century, as well as the original cinematographic equipment, have been removed, the hall at number 3, Arenberg Street, has retained all of its charm and character. And besides, the stripped-down aesthetic of Nova Cinema is intentional: it was a conscious decision to leave the architectural incoherencies and century of history visible to visitors.
Built at the end of the 19th century, the space originally served as a stylish cabaret theatre with 390 tiered seats, stage, large curtains and an orchestra pit added afterwards. Tucked away between bars, theaters, performance and concert venues that have long since disappeared, this cabaret was equipped with one of the finest organs in Brussels and soon became a Vaudeville theater. It saw a long succession of names, referred to as "Maison du Rire" (House of Laughter, 1909), "Cinéma Mondain" (Cinema of the World, 1908), "Théâtre du Bois Sacré" (Theater of the Sacred Forest, 1911) and "Théâtre des Capucines" (1919) before being transformed in 1935 into a cinema (by replacing the dressing rooms with toilets and placing a projection room in the balcony). During its time as the Arenberg Studio, the space served as an intimate art cinema with a sober atmosphere and refined style: designed as a statement against the ostentatious, excessively decorated movie houses of the time.
The first years of Studio Arenberg’s existence catered mainly to a more high-end crowd, with screenings of the most innovative American films. But it later become one of the rare places in Brussels that dedicated itself to a cinematic culture that moved away from the mainstream, that focused on the first films, the unknown directors, the so-called marginal productions.
The theatre has been run by a crazy engineer, a movie critic, a communist preacher and for a while it was joined with a bistro in the Rue des Bouchers. In the 60’s it was nearly converted into a club for NATO officers until a film distribution company that also managed the Twins theatres at Passage 44 rescued it from impending doom. The basement level was then renovated and turned into a "club for cinephiles", a small bar where meetings and debates with directors could take place. A little less than 20 years later, the space was taken over by Cinélibre, also a film distribution company that managed the cinema in the Arenberg Galleries. In 1977 the main theatre was reduced to 160 seats, and the balcony disappeared to makes space for a second theatre, 77 seats large, so that films could have a longer run.
The building was eventually acquired by KredietBank, and the lease was not renewed. On May 28, 1987, the movie theatre in Arenberg Street had to close its doors. Just before doing so, the theatre was completely dismantled, with the orchestra pit once again uncovered and the original balcony restored. And then, instead of being renovated and used as an office space, the new landlord instead changed his mind and decided to use it as a depot for old furniture!
After 10 wasted years, the KB agreed to temporarily allow the newly-created Nova to occupy the building. The theatre was re-instated and equipped in only a few weeks. Nova could occupy the space until the end of 2000. After three changes in the ownership and rental conditions, Nova is still here!
Nova was able to establish itself in this abandoned hall thanks to the help of a dedicated volunteer staff and loyal movie fans, not to mention the support of a few entrepreneurs. Despite it’s undeniable success story, Nova survives day-to-day, like a squat, in constant need of more state support. In the face of these odds, Nova has persevered and makes ends meet out of the sheer hard work and resourcefulness of its independent and versatile staff.
The intimate yet spacious theatre is home to a wide screen (about 4.5 x 8.5m), a balcony and a convertible orchestra pit. It contains over 200 seats and is equipped to project 35mm, 16mm, Super8 and video, all with a new DolbySR resonance installation. The foyer-café located downstairs underneath the cinema is an ideal space for meetings, discussions and alternative exhibits, installations and all-night parties. A new space has been added downstairs that can easily be modified and adapted to suit the needs of the diverse, interdisciplinary projects hosted by Nova.
Nova Cinema is a kind of living museum, not only due to its unique architectural and urban history, but also due to our commitment to screening historic cinematic films in their original technical conditions. This can be done thanks to the help from Cinevolution Association, a unique film studies and research center that owns one of the world’s only collections of ancient cinematographic processes, part of which is exhibited permanently in the Nova entryway.