Big screen, bigger problems: Canada’s independent theaters seek their own Hollywood comeback


James Brewer, left, and his daughter, Elodie Brewer, use their vaccination passports for the first time to visit the Rio Theater in East Vancouver.Alia Youssef / The Globe and Mail

If anyone was to come to the rescue, it had to be James Bond. Late Friday of Thanksgiving weekend, the Ontario government announced the lifting of capacity restrictions for theaters. While the new Bond film No time to die was not the real reason, many people noted the coincidence by toasting the decision.

“Well, all the trouble has paid off! Nuria Bronfman of the Cinemas Association of Canada wrote in a newsletter for MTAC members. With only a few hours’ notice, however, it was also a rush – especially for independent theaters, which were already operating on limited resources. There was no time to prepare, let alone die.

“There was no real indication this was going to happen,” said Daniel Demois, co-owner of three independent theaters in Ontario, who was excited, if not surprised. While its theaters removed capacity rules over the weekend, they later reinstated some distancing measures. “This is something our customers will prefer. “

And so the roller coaster ride continues for the movie theaters. Times have been particularly precarious for the country’s 350 or so independent theaters – from single-screen mom-pop operations to small chains such as Cinémas Guzzo du Québec – since COVID-19 gave them the darkest plot in the world. their life.

“It was like standing still,” says Wendy Huot, owner of The Screening Room in Kingston, Ont. “At first, I was worried about the existential future of the theater. But now I feel like we’re stuck in limbo.

Even before the pandemic, Canada’s independent theaters had fought a multitude of battles: the top-to-bottom quality of the Hollywood product, the reduced time it takes for a movie to go from exclusive theatrical exposure to streaming, and what some theaters The owners allege it’s a near-monopoly, with Cineplex’s 161 locations dominating about 75 percent of the box office market share in Canada in 2019, according to the Canadian Independent Exhibitor Network (NICE ). At the start of last year, the independents even asked for regulatory respite from the Competition Bureau, arguing that content was blocked or over-controlled.

Then came the confinements. Statistics Canada reports that the pandemic has pushed the profit margin of the film industry “hastily” from an average positive 14.6% since 2014 to negative 42.3% in 2020. Operating revenues in 2020. 2020 fell by 70.6% compared to 2018.

“We didn’t have the option of curbside pickup,” says Bronfman. “Our curbside pickup is Netflix.”

And now the wage subsidies, which many theaters have relied on, are coming to an end, although targeted aid for hard-hit sectors has been promised.

While this has been a horror show for theaters at all levels, Indies operate at smaller margins, with less influence, and under different terms than Cineplex or Landmark, the second largest exhibitor in the country. Even something like the size of the lobby – usually much smaller than a typical multiplex – is problematic in physically distant moments.

Now, the aftermath of the pandemic includes the scarcity of content, with studios reluctant to release large-scale films in a market that is not completely open; an increasingly shortened theatrical window; and inconsistent and evolving public health guidelines.

In Ontario, for example, there was a period when theaters could officially operate at 50 percent of their capacity. But once Huot factored in the math of physical distance, she was only able to complete a fraction of it.

In Quebec, capacity restrictions were also lifted on Thanksgiving weekend, but a theater mask mandate was reinstated. “So it’s a step forward and a step back,” says Mario Fortin, who operates three theaters in Montreal.

Next Monday, most cinemas in British Columbia can reach most of the other provinces and return to 100% capacity. But in that province, the arts felt they had played the role of second fiddle to other sectors during the pandemic. Some in the industry, for example, were outraged when public health officials closed theaters last November, but allowed restaurants and bars to remain open.

Thus, last January, Corinne Lea, owner of the Rio Theater in Vancouver, made the ultimate pivot. “Shit the Arts. We’re a sports bar now, ”reads the Rio marquee. “I like to think of it as performance art,” says Lea, who has been an advocate and agitator of independent theaters – but not just on issues related to the pandemic.

Midway through this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, things were in full swing. Well, the COVID-19 era is in full swing – so, maybe half swinging. But the audience was back and the buttery pleasure was almost palpable. Before a screening of the new Canadian thriller The boathouse at the Rio this first week of October, Lea participated in a Zoom call with independent movie operators from across British Columbia. They came together for a roundtable to strategize – and to gain support. A lot of time has been spent in the ongoing battle with the big guys.

In early 2020, the newly formed NICE went to the Competition Bureau. They argued that Cineplex had a grip on Canadian distributors and was preventing films from reaching independent theaters – with a negative impact on consumer choice.

“You’re going to try to book a movie and usually the response will be that you have to wait for it to be done at the nearest cinema,” Demois explains. “There aren’t a lot of other businesses where people will turn your business away because they’re also selling it to someone else.”

The Rio Theater. On October 25, most cinemas in British Columbia will be able to return to 100% capacity.Rafal Gerszak / Rafal Gerszak

The Rio accuses of having been excluded from major films, such as Parasite and Bunny Jojo, During months. So if a cinephile wants to see this movie in this city, they have no choice but to see it in a Cineplex.

“This illustrates a systemic pattern of behavior related to their market dominance that affects access to cinematic content at independent theaters across the country,” Lea wrote to the office.

Although the Competition Bureau did not want to reveal the result for confidentiality reasons, Léa said she was disappointed. “They didn’t help us at all. Surviving this pandemic and then seeing that these problems still exist is very disheartening. “

Cineplex said the issue did not concern them. “Cineplex does not own the rights to the films, we license them from Canadian distributors to play in our theaters. Ultimately, it’s up to the movie distributors where they show their movies, ”wrote Melissa Pressacco, Cineplex communications director, in an email.

Ariane Giroux-Dallaire with Montreal distributor MK2 / Mile End (Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire), echoed this. “It was a situation that independent theaters were complaining about before the pandemic and, at the end of the day, it’s up to the distributor to decide where they want to open their movie.”

Another concern raised by independents, especially in small towns, is how long they say distributors insist they have to keep a movie in their theaters.

Gary Shilling, executive director of the Powell River Film Society in British Columbia, says that if his Patricia Theater wanted to show, for example, the latest Marvel movie, “you have to commit to two weeks of showing their film exclusively – You are not allowed to filter anything else.

“And in a small town of 20,000 inhabitants, after three, four nights, everyone who goes to see the film has seen it. You are therefore obliged to show a film that has already saturated its audience. “

Patricia’s and Terrace’s twin theaters Tillicum were part of VIFF this year, a first. Tillicum owner Diane Robinson was excited, but keen to make room for festival films – not because of her clients, but because of Hollywood distributors. “If they refuse to give me a movie because I’m taking something that I think is valuable, so be it. It’s a bit like the war of the independents.

Rio Theater employees had to turn away some potential customers the first week after a province-wide COVID-19 vaccine mandate went into effect for some sites.Alia Youssef / The Globe and Mail

Lea’s claim, however, is that Cineplex has such dominance in the market that distributors are forced to put the chain’s wishes first. Canadian distributor Mongrel Media said the Rio may not have been able to reserve some films on its list because the Vancouver cinema does not offer enough daily screenings. Canadian representatives from major Hollywood studios Disney, Sony and Warner Bros. did not respond to an interview request.

But Giroux-Dallaire feels there’s a vibe we’ve all been in this together since the pandemic hit. “Everyone has to work together if we are to make sure the industry gets back on its feet. “

Cineplex, meanwhile, is seeking more than $ 2.18 billion in damages from UK chain Cineworld, which withdrew from an agreement to purchase Cineplex in June 2020. Cineworld has filed an assessed counterclaim. to about $ 55 million.

Hollywood loves happy endings, or at least silver liners.

One of those benefits for emerging from the pandemic is Telefilm’s relaunch of the theatrical exhibition program, which recognizes the role theaters play in attracting attention to Canadian films. Individual theaters are eligible for grants of up to $ 30,000, chains up to $ 500,000.

And in a happy start, David Hawkes launched the renovated Hollywood Theater in Vancouver during the pandemic. The cinema participated in VIFF, but also hosts live events and parties. “To survive, you have to be everything,” he says.

Meanwhile, in Ottawa, Demois and his team saved the beloved ByTowne theater, after the art house announced it was shutting down last December. And in Powell River on VIFF’s opening day, a deal was made to sell the Patricia to the non-profit company – a way to keep the theater up and running and solvent.

But will the audience feel comfortable going back to the movies? Or have the habits changed for good?

Fortin, in Montreal, predicts a happy ending. “Human beings still need to get out,” he says. “Sit in a dark warm place and someone tell them a story and they cry and they laugh together. They need this. Staying at home won’t give you that.

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