Big changes are on the horizon for Canadian independent movie theatres

In early 2019, after over half a decade running a dedicated—albeit nomadic—not-for-profit co-op, the Sudbury Indie Cinema (SIC) cut the proverbial ribbon in front of a school repurposed into a movie theatre, their new permanent location. 

By cobbling together money from government funds and their film exhibitions, the organization and their state-of-the-art, 180-seat cinema could now bring independent film to the eyes of Sudburians. By finally screening movies in a physical space, the SIC became the only art house cinema in northern Ontario.

Beth Mairs, lead programmer at the SIC, had been planning festivals and limited runs of indie films for years without a common location. Once the SIC had a permanent home, there were some choices to be made concerning what would be screened.

“Our programming was pretty experimental, […] we were primarily [showing] Canadian, foreign, and documentary films,” Mairs told The Pigeon in an interview. “We show very few films from the US, period.”

By opening up their permanent theatre, the SIC was able to introduce new people to their programming, with membership numbers tripling since 2017.

But just over a year later, they were forced to shut their doors indefinitely.

Heeding the words of Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Teresa Tam, the SIC made the decision to stop screening movies on Mar. 15. The next day, all theatres across Ontario were ordered to close.

The spread of COVID-19 has caused many independent businesses across Canada to put their plans on hold.

Until recently, establishments deemed non-essential couldn’t operate normally, but as restrictions loosen, many are finding ways to serve their customers within the new normal.

Restaurants are opening patios and offering socially-distanced dining, retail stores can limit the number of people in their shop, and patrons are encouraged to move in and out of enclosed spaces relatively quickly.

However, independent movie theatres are in an interesting position. Unable to ship products or offer quick pick up like other businesses, the mandatory shutdown put many into survival mode. Without any real way to generate revenue comparable to pre-COVID averages, most had to sit still and wait for good news, hoping for the best.

Other options did crop up for some, though.

Josh Stafford, co-owner of Ottawa’s Mayfair Theatre, found a wealth of support from members of the community. Featuring architectural flair from the era of its founding in 1932, the Mayfair has cultivated a dedicated audience. By offering to put people’s names on select seats in exchange for donations to keep the theatre running, Stafford managed to accumulate enough reserve funds to stay open through the pandemic. 

“I genuinely thought we would sell ten or twenty [seats], and that would be nice, you know, make a couple extra bucks,” Stafford told The Pigeon in an interview.

“In a very short period of time, we sold out the cinema.”

People were excited enough to pay to put their names on some bigger ticket items, too, and Stafford managed to sell spots on the projector, some couches, and even the Mayfair’s piano.

This seat-selling strategy is only a short-term solution, and eventually, business needs to start rolling through again. While smaller, one-screen theatres like the Mayfair and the SIC can operate at limited capacity without feeling too much of a squeeze, larger independent theatres have a tough time getting going again, like the Highlands Cinemas in Kinmount, Ont.

Boasting five screens, 550 seats, a cinema museum, and a cat sanctuary that houses, feeds, and cleans up after 42 abandoned domestic and feral cats, Highlands Cinemas have quite a bit more overhead costs.

To Keith Stata, owner of Highlands Cinemas, virus shutdowns represent a death sentence. 

For the Highlands, a large percentage of ticket sales come from cottage-goers, busloads of summer camp attendees, and Prince Edward County day-trippers.

Reliance on these seasonal customers means that the theatre will usually hibernate during the winter and open up in the spring. Remaining open during colder months does not bring in enough money to break even. After a little spring cleaning, the projectors turn on and tourists flood in. 

With mounting expenses and a lack of seasonal customers on the horizon, Stata decided to write the entire year off.

“Can you go through two years?  That’s the question I’m looking at, [but] this year is already gone” Stata said.

Similar to many theatres owned by larger entertainment corporations, like Cineplex and Landmark Cinemas, the Highlands tends to make most of its money from first-run features.

New movies are more likely to fill seats, but virus shutdowns and stay-at-home orders slowed most big productions to a halt, meaning summer blockbusters have been pushed back. Highly anticipated movies like A Quiet Place Part II, Candyman, and Ghostbusters: Afterlife are all expected to hit the big screens much later than their original scheduled release.

While the lack of new big-name material may have played into Stata’s decision to keep the doors closed this summer, a lot of other independent theatres don’t seem to mind. Depending on the theatre one frequents, patrons might expect to see lower budget independent films, Canadian-made content, or even nostalgic hits from years gone by.

Dawn Laing planned on screening first-run features at The Mustang Drive-In in Prince Edward County, but COVID-19 made her reconsider.

She and her partner, Drew Downs, bought the two-screen facility back in Oct. 2019.

Drive-in theatres don’t often operate during the winter, so they had plenty of time to plan their dream marquee—but whatever they planned in the winter had to be put on hold as primetime summer operations were cancelled.

Instead of showing the latest movie put out by major studios, The Mustang is simply screening Laing’s favourite films.

“We’re showing throwbacks, classics, and basically movies that we really love and we kind of wanted to do anyway. This […] actually excites us because it’s all the content that we really love,” Laing said.

By sticking with older flicks, adjusting their pricing plan, and hosting socially distanced private events, The Mustang has been able to soften the financial blow that operating at half capacity would have otherwise dealt.

When thinking about the movie-watching experience in 2020, it’s hard to ignore the major disruptor of home entertainment. Streaming offers a convenient way to watch content without heading out into a public space, something valuable during a global pandemic. 

“The funny thing is, people try to associate streaming as the big monster that’s going to kill us. Cinema, I think, has always had that monster over its shoulder,” Stafford said. “Whether it be television, or VCRs, or video games, or Netflix […] we’re still here.”

In fact, Netflix and other streaming platforms that make their own content now have a somewhat symbiotic relationship with indie theatres. For a film to be considered for a major award, it often  must be shown on a minimum number of screens. Bigger theatres might not want to take on the cost of showing a movie that won’t sell out, but independent cinemas can show that film on a limited run, have a few people come out to see it, and still break even.

“If it is more and more usual that people like Scorcese, or Judd Apatow, or Spike Lee have their movies as Netflix-type movies, there’s still a part of the audience that still wants to see it on the big screen,” Stafford said.

In addition to streaming services putting their movies in independent theatres, some companies are teaming up with small businesses in interesting ways.

The Mayfair and SIC both worked with studios to set up on-demand portals online. Independent film and video distributors like Kino Lorber and Film Movement set up digital marquees for smaller theatres to share with their communities, and online ticket sales were split 50-50, allowing supporters to continue watching curated movies during lockdown while helping to keep cinemas afloat.

If anything, the spread of COVID-19 has forced Canadian independent movie theatres to face the reality of running a business: adapt or die. During the downtime, the folks running the show have had to make difficult decisions by finding new revenue models or trying to stay the course.

With independent theatres putting forth more experimental slates, filmmakers working on leaner productions now have a chance to get their work in front of more eyes. Plus, audiences still interested in heading out to the movies might find themselves diversifying their film diet.

“I think it’s everyone’s duty […] to continue to try and stay relevant and innovate. That’s why [we’re] wanting to add new elements, like an immersive art park, or daytime events,” Laing said. “We want to try and create something that maintains relevancy and grows with consumers.”

In the end, the fate of independent theatres is in the hands of the audience, and, in a way, that’s not all that different than the way things were before the pandemic. The excitement of coming back to so-called ‘normal’ life is still here, and improved sanitation procedures have made it so dedicated film enthusiasts can still see what they want to see.

Whether that enthusiasm will remain during the winter months, or through a second wave of COVID-19, it’s hard to say.

“It was kind of laughable to us when they were saying you’ll be restricted to 50 people in your cinema. You tell me [at] how many independent cinemas […] how many times there are only five people in the audience. We’re going to be fine,” Mairs said. “I think not just for us, there’s a fulsome future ahead.”

Keegan Hughes. Reader. Writer. Filmmaker. Movie enthusiast. Host on Top5ScaryVideos.

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