Canada's indie movie theatres say industry is in crisis

Canada's indie movie theatres say industry is in crisis

Canada's independent cinema industry is in crisis, its owners say, as they face mounting challenges from streaming services and restrictive Hollywood studio rules.

Sixty per cent of independent movie theatre operators were at a loss at the end of their most recent fiscal year, according to a report released Tuesday by the Network of Independent Canadian Exhibitors (NICE). They were surveyed between December and February.

About two-thirds of the 67 respondents said they need increased public funding in order to stay open, with many saying they would need about $50,000 annually for the next three years to close immediate gaps.

Sonya William, director and founder of NICE, called the numbers "stark."

"A lot of these venues are really at risk of closing."

WATCH | The crisis facing independent cinemas:

While theatre owners are asking for government help in the form of funds and advocacy, they place much of the blame on rules imposed by major studios like Disney that determine when and for how long they are able to screen certain big-ticket films.

Disney did not respond to an email requesting comment by press time.

'Clean runs' frustrate small theatre owners

The organization is pushing for an end to "clean runs," when studios require an independent theatre to dedicate a screen to just one film for up to four weeks, even if the film stops drawing crowds after the first week.

This can be especially frustrating for small-town theatres that only have one screen, says Shaun Aquiline, who runs the Gem Theatre in Grand Forks, B.C., with his wife Kirstin.

"I've just shut the doors and locked it up and told the staff we will open back up when the contract is done, because right now we're just losing money and there's no point staying open."

Submitted by Shaun Aquiline
Submitted by Shaun Aquiline

He said he is just breaking even, and restrictions from big studios make it hard to run a theatre in a town of 4,000 people.

Aquiline said he even had to cancel a live comedy event last month because a major studio threatened to pull his licence from future films if he held any event outside of the clean run.

"They said if your door's open, you're showing our product.

"What else could you do? We had no choice but to cancel, so that's what we did."

Over 80 per cent of survey respondents said they have been impacted by the enforcement of clean runs, and more than 60 per cent said ending the practice would be "paradigm-shifting" or "very much" impactful for their business.

Cineplex gets 'first dibs'

NICE is also calling for the elimination of zone provisions, which keep exhibitors from playing films that are screening at bigger nearby theatres.

For Wendy Huot, that means waiting on Cineplex locations in the suburbs to finish with a movie before she can screen it at her downtown Kingston, Ont., theatre, The Screening Room.

Submitted by Wendy Huot
Submitted by Wendy Huot

"We have to wait until the multiplexes have really made all the money they possibly can with them and then decide to stop playing the film, and then we're finally able to bring the movie downtown," Huot said.

A Cineplex spokesperson said in an email that the company has to license its movies from distributors, and it "is up to the distributors to decide where they play their films."

The Screening Room was thriving before the pandemic, even doing renovations in 2018 that doubled its size, and Huot said the first two months of 2020 were her busiest on record.

But after scraping by through the COVID-19 pandemic, which temporarily closed theatres in many regions, Huot said business only started to return to normal last summer.

Now, however, theatres are also competing with the encroachment of streaming services.

Submitted by Garrett Elliott
Submitted by Garrett Elliott

Sometimes, a popular film will run for eight weeks at Cineplex, and will already be on Amazon Prime or another platform by the time it gets to Huot's theatre.

"Of course a lot of people will choose to just stay and watch it at home," she said.

'It's not just a theatre'

NICE's research comes as arts organizations across Canada are lamenting a lack of funding and a struggle to survive.

Last week, the president of Hot Docs said this year's event could be its last without more financial support. The non-profit runs Canada's largest documentary film festival, as well as a year-round cinema in Toronto.

Canadian Heritage has engaged with NICE and is considering its report, said Ariane Joazard-Bélizaire, a spokesperson for Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge, in an email.

''We are aware of the challenges facing independent cinemas.

"We are committed to ensuring that Canadian stories continue to be both heard and seen, including collaborating with independent cinemas and recognizing their vital role in our cultural ecosystem in large and small communities across the country."

Aquiline said the issue goes far beyond the silver screen. Theatres like the Gem also serve as multi-use community spaces where people hold events ranging from live music to birthday parties.

Indeed, the NICE report found more than one-third of the theatres in need of public funds are the only arts or culture option in their community.

Aquiline said all he wants is a chance to survive.

"When a small town loses its theatre, I think it loses a little piece of its soul to some degree, because it's not just a theatre.

"It's more than just about the movies. It's about your community."