The Time Cinema: Yesterday Again Today

Throughout my Fulbright year working with cinemas in New Zealand, I was constantly asked if I had visited movie theatre enthusiast John Bell and  his private cinema in Wellington. I was asked so frequently that I knew it was only a matter of time before our paths crossed. All it took was a quick phone call and a free afternoon in the capital city of New Zealand to finally experience the charm of this backyard wonder.

Finally arriving in Lyall Bay and passing the address twice, I finally sighted the infamous Time Cinema. Being a private cinema, the Time does not provide a parking lot, illuminated sign, or any other noticeable beacon for customers to flock toward. Instead, it is nestled at the end of an ordinary driveway where a garage would typically stand.  After a brief introduction from John Bell (manager and owner of the Time Cinema), I learned that over three decades ago, this cozy theatre was once John’s own garage. Now, instead of housing hammers and wrenches, the garage shelters a private museum and movie complex.


Located at 191 Sutherland Rd, Lyall Bay, Wellington.


Stepping into the colorful lobby, there is no questioning John’s love of the movies. Old projectors loom overhead bolted to the roof, a vintage pinball machine flashes in the corner, crisp posters and tabloids dress the walls, all while atmospheric music from the days of Elvis enhance the mood of a time capsule.

There is quite a story behind John’s backyard theatre. According to the Time Cinema website, “The vision of a private cinema was born over 35 years ago when an already fast-growing collection of cinema memorabilia and films arrived and was housed in what is now Time Cinema. Enquiries from those who had already become aware that a film show could be possible here generated somewhat of a demand that soon escalated to the point where improvements to match the enthusiasm that was being generated needed to be put in place. The collection of movie equipment has grown with the years, aided to a great extent by enthusiastic visitors who have felt that their old cameras and other gear should be turned over to our care as custodians. So now, the efforts to keep on improving continue as we are ever needing to find space, storage and showcasing to adequately meet the need to preserve what is rapidly starting to become history, that of the early days of film and the methods by which it was exhibited.” John’s passion project has become an icon in Wellington and almost everyone in the city has heard of it; it may just be the most popular backyard found on the entire island nation.


The lobby of the Time Cinema is dawned with cinematic treasures collected from over the century.


One aspect of the cinema that makes it vastly unique from every other private complex is its focus on acting as a hosting location for the community rather than a personal home theatre. John and his wife Margaret dedicate their time to the film loving citizens of Wellington by hosting all sorts of unique events. Geoff Lealand explains from his website,

“This is a private cinema, in a suburb approximate to Wellington Airport. It is also a manifestation of the owner’s love of film, where you can experience an older style of film-going (the screening schedule favours films from the 1950s to 1980s), with a mix of film and DVD projection. Not everyone gets to build a fully-functioning cinema in their backyard! Advance bookings are advised and tickets are very modestly priced (matinees and evening shows). You can also get to view memorabilia and tinker with a pianola or antique pinball machine. Certainly a different film experience, with opportunities to share the enthusiasm of Time Cinema’s (motto: “Yesterday Again Today”) creators John and Margaret Bell.”

One of the roles that Mr. and Mrs. Bell undertake is hosting the Cinema Club. While I was there, I had the opportunity to attend a club meeting alongside several Wellington locals. Each club viewing carries a theme (Road Trips, Bowling, etc.) and vintage content that John deems worthy is shown and discussed by club members. The night I attended, the showing was themed to skiing. Like a captain at his helm, John ran the projection booth giving a wonderful presentation from multiple vintage projectors. He showcased old ads found on celluloid reels, short forgotten films, and finally a feature film from the golden age of movies. He even played “God Save the Queen” (as every cinema did throughout most of New Zealand’s cinematic history) while everyone in the room arose and sang along. John and his wife also treated the film club to a lovely intermission tea break located in the lobby. It was certainly a comfortable way to get to know the audience that you were sharing the film experience with.


The screening room seats 25 guests.


The Time Cinema is also available to the community as a rental location. It is known to host the occasional birthday party and private screening if requested. Also, in what little time John does have, he manages to convert and organize his countless stock of celluloid films, clean and make enhancements to his theatre, and give the occasional tour to guests peeking around his property. John’s backyard project is a true gem and I cannot encourage cinema enthusiasts enough to attend a screening with the Cinema Club.


Below is a web video I created for John and the Time Cinema showcasing the charm it has to offer…



Make sure to treat yourself to an upcoming showing if you will be in Wellington! You can learn more about the Time Cinema by visiting their official website at



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