Sawtell Cinema: A local love story

The jewel in Sawtell’s crown sits under First Avenue's iconic canopy of century-old fig trees. Our local independent cinema has been a prized meeting place for generations of Sawtellians and visitors for over 80 years.

Unlike generic big city cinemas, or the mundanity of streaming at home, this unique slice of cinematic history is a step back in time. To this day the warm buttered popcorn is popped on the spot and the authentic choc tops are handmade in-house - albeit with a modern flavour; salted caramel, mint, chocolate, boysenberry, macadamia, or old-school vanilla.

While the historic picture house has screened countless tales over the years, the building has also been at the centre of a dramatic local love story that has lasted decades.

Doris and Alan Brissett bought the original Sawtell Community Hall in 1941, added a projection room, as well as tiered seating, and a cinema was born. But by 1955 the first sensational chapter hit the site when a mini-cyclone ripped through First Avenue and destroyed Sawtell Cinema.

Not willing to miss their favourite flicks, locals embraced their very own open-air cinema for a year while a new cinema was being built. An old Ford ute powered a generator for the projector, cinema-goers brought umbrellas for wet weather and children reportedly came armed with BB guns as added sound effects for the Westerns.

The double brick structure that stands today has weathered the decades since 1956. Long before the internet, Sawtell Cinema was a country kid’s connection to the rest of the world. That grand single-screen theatre was filled with flip-up seats, had no air-conditioning and its only toilet sat outside. At times, neighbourhood kids would gather under the old figs waiting for delayed film reels to arrive straight off the plane from Sydney.

Drama once again washed through the cinema in 2009 when 1m of floodwaters flowed through the building, causing extensive damage and forcing its closure for two months. The tragedy spurred a group of locals to form the Friends of Sawtell Cinema, a collective of supporters that continues today.

Its next dramatic act was the arrival of digital technology, and the cost of converting the cinema led the Brissett family to sell the business in December 2012. The lights were out for three years until a team of investors, including renowned film critic David Stratton, injected $2.4 million and a group of passionate cinephiles raised $142,000 to reanimate the cinema once more.

At midnight on December 17, 2015 a newly renovated two-screen digital cinema opened to Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens. Although it was saved from extinction, the epic screenplay of Sawtell Cinema is continually being rewritten.

In early 2024, the chain operating the cinema went into voluntary administration so locals held their collective breath yet again. But like a Hollywood happy ending, Regional Cinemas Australia stepped in to take over the reins, because - as always for Sawtell Cinema - the show must go on.

Distance from Coffs Harbour CBD: 11kms
Distance from the airport: 9.8kms