Above: Pulp Cinema’s entrance. Photo: Francois Lombard.

– Lia Snijman

Pulp Cinema and Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Commercial Services do not seem to be on the same page regarding the ending of Pulp Cinema’s renting contract with The Neelsie Student Centre, leading to fears by Pulp Cinema that they will not be allowed to continue their services. Pulp Cinema is the only movie theatre currently in Stellenbosch.

End of the contract
According to Werner de Swardt, owner of Pulp Cinema, he was informed by Gary Howell of the Neelsie Centre’s management on 7 September that his contract would not be renewed and that there would have to be a discussion about what needs to be returned to its original state. Howell allegedly suggested a mixed-use model.

Annika Hohbach, Pulp Film Society's chairperson, and Werner de Swardt, Pulp Cinema's owner. Photo: Lia Snijman.

Annika Hohbach, Pulp Film Society’s chairperson, and Werner de Swardt, Pulp Cinema’s owner. Photo: Lia Snijman.

The Neelsie Student Centre and its letting office is run by SU’s Commercial Services (SunCom).

Martin Viljoen, SU’s spokesperson, said De Swardt is reaching the end of his contract which states that he will have to leave the premises by 31 December 2020, as confirmed by a lawyer’s letter and De Swardt himself. “Of critical importance is that at the commencement of the lease agreement, 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 records the intention of both parties by including a resolutive condition that records this mutual intention. This was again reconfirmed when the option to renew was exercised in December 2018,” said Viljoen.

De Swardt acknowledged the landlord was not obligated to renew his contract after it expired, “but it is very rare for a commercial landlord to not renew a successful commercial tenant’s lease”. He said, “The landlord is making it sound as if I was made aware of non-renewal of our lease in a different, or more specific, fashion than other tenants, but this is simply not true. It came as an absolute shock when we received the letter that our lease will not be renewed.”

Conferencing needs
He said that on 9 September Anita Nel, head of SunCom, spoke of the Central Events and Conferencing Office (CECO) that has been started in an email to him. She explained that it would be in charge of short-term rental management for conferences and events and that it’s a policy they’re exploring for 2021. Viljoen confirmed that this is what the unit was created for. Nel said Pulp Cinema had been identified as a potential space to use.

De Swardt claimed that she assured him that he and the Pulp Film Society (PFS) would still be able to use the venue and fulfill their needs. He said his emails with further enquiries on CECO were ignored. Viljoen said it had been communicated to De Swardt that CECO will be doing the administration of bookings and an indication was given to him of available timeslots.

About four weeks ago De Swardt, Annika Hohbach, current chairperson of PFS, Lara Odendaal, former chair of PFS and Howell had a Zoom meeting regarding Pulp Cinema’s future. Howell allegedly made it clear during this meeting that PFS’s needs would be accommodated. The meeting timed out after 20 minutes and Howell promised to reschedule with them, something De Swardt and Hohbach said he didn’t do.

Hohbach said she is concerned about how PFS will be kept in mind by Howell, as he did not explain how he would be doing this.

During this meeting, De Swardt and Hohbach expressed their willingness to accommodate SU as far as possible. They said they would stand off time from their screening for SU to host conferences and events, if they received 7 days’ notice. De Swardt offered that this would happen for free and that his staff, projectors and other equipment could be used.

Viljoen stated, “While [the contract with De Swardt] comes to an end, the University is pleased to be able to offer another utility for the space via the newly established [CECO] which is an innovative commercial undertaking to fulfil Innovus and SunCom’s mandate of 5th stream income generation on behalf of SU. Their main aim is to manage all short-term rental of facilities on our campus, regardless of the type of event hosted. 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.”

“It should also be made very clear 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,” he added.

Business as usual?
De Swardt contented that Pulp would not be able to continue as usual, as all of their equipment has to be removed, they are only being offered two evenings a week to screen movies and their kiosks selling snacks and beverages will have to close. “This will be the end of Pulp Cinema, since the business model of Pulp Cinema is to offer regular screening to the Pulp Film Society and that the kiosks in the foyer subsidises this service.”

He said if he were to leave, that would mean R55,000 rent a month that SU would lose, on top of a potential free conferencing space. He further claimed that it would cost more than R1 million for SU to turn the venue in a conferencing space with proper audiovisual capabilities, as he has to return the venue to its original state.

Viljoen said that with the theatre complex becoming a general venue, it would serve more uses and be of service to all students, instead of one society’s students. “The venue model has improved and sustainable potential and 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 on the mix of the student centre and the services it provides for all,” he said and added that all investments “capital funding for long term income yield”.

De Swardt said he and PFS “want to comply” with SU’s needs. He does, however, want to do this while still running Pulp Cinema from the Neelsie Centre. He mentioned that he has 12 staff members, all of whom live very close to the Neelsie Centre, and that he does not know what will happen to them should Pulp Cinema close. It is also his own main income.

Hohbach said that it is time and money intensive to run Pulp Cinema and that they as students could not run it themselves, thus why they need someone like De Swardt and a place like Pulp Cinema. She added that the Neelsie Centre is a safe space for students to come to and thus moving the cinema would not be a practical option.

She explained that PFS pays Pulp Cinema to use 85% of its screening time so that they can have their regular screenings and events. “Our relationship with the cinema has always been more of a partnership than a contractual one as the cinema accommodates us on almost all requests and avails their friendly staff to us as well.”

Both Hohbach and De Swardt expressed their fear that if Pulp Cinema were to close down, it would be a great cultural loss for Stellenbosch. There are about 2000-3000 student members, with an extra 1000 non-student members, making it the biggest student society on campus, according to Hohbach. De Swardt described it as a place of “real social integration” and mentioned their many fervent members, many of which are SU staff.

Rent relief and Shop Owners’ Association
De Swardt said that he has clashed previously with SunCom and the Neelsie Centre’s management as he is in charge of the Shop Owners’ Association which brings collective complaints from the tenants to the management. A continuous struggle has been high rent prices, especially during Covid-19.

A shop owner, who wished to stay anonymous, said he had a good relationship with the centre’s management and that he did not generally complain about the rent as he did sign a contract knowing the prices. However, he said that not enough relief had been given during Covid-19 as some shops have started shuttering in the Neelsie Centre, usually those that had already been struggling a bit before the lockdown. He said that the Shop Owners’ Association had been useful in obtaining legal opinions when necessary.

Other shop owners, who also wished to stay anonymous so as not to sour business relationships, said they were unhappy with the fact that they have had to struggle to obtain rent relief during the lockdown and even now still. Allegedly they had to get a lawyer’s opinion in as the Shop Owners’ Association before the centre gave them rent relief for 4 months, according to one of the shop owners. They say that their revenue has lowered by a far larger percentage than their rent relief percentages due to most students still staying away from campus.

While everybody’s rental in the Neelsie Centre is unique and varies according to many factors, the centre promised the same percentage of rent relief discount to all tenants. According to an official email on 27 August, tenants received and will receive 50% relief for April, 100% from May to August, 55% for September and October, 45% for November and 35% for December.

All of the show owners said that while they have had to struggle and argue with the Neelsie Centre’s management to obtain rent relief, it did not act openly antagonistically towards the Shop Owners’ Association.

Viljoen said that De Swardt “greatly benefited from the extensive rental relief arrangements made with tenants in the Neelsie during COVID-19” while still receiving the full income from PFS’s annual fees.