Could The Coronavirus Pandemic Be The Death Of Canadian Independent Movie Theatres?

The coronavirus pandemic has left no industry unscathed, but its consequences for the entertainment industry are extremely profound and far-reaching. Independent and low-budget entertainment entities suffer the most under the economic burden of the pandemic, as they often have little wealth to fall back on, and few expenditures to cut.

Across Canada, an increasing number of independent movie theatres are going out of business under the financial strain of the pandemic. While stay-at-home orders and shutdowns have certainly rattled investors, conglomerates like Cineplex are nevertheless in the best position to survive the pandemic without malignant injury. Independent theatres are hubs for local art and are often beloved by the communities that support them. While stay-at-home orders are essential for slowing the spread of COVID-19, it is unfortunate that the entities most affected by the economic hardship brought on by the pandemic are those who contribute so vibrantly to the local cultural landscape.

In Edmonton, Alberta, the Princess Theatre has been put up for lease. The Princess is a hub for art-house cinema and is currently the city’s oldest surviving movie theatre. Located on Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue, a road with relatively high foot-traffic, and walking distance from the city’s largest university campus, it is in an ideal location to draw-in local crowds. “It is unfeasible for the Princess to keep operating as we have for the past four months,” their website reads. The website also lists a phone number and contact information for those interested in taking over the lease. A similar situation presents itself in Calgary, Alberta, where the Plaza Theatre, which is owned by the same owner of the Princess, is up for lease. The Plaza is a local hotspot for first-run arthouse cinema, and over the years has hosted events for a plethora of local film festivals. The Plaza first opened as a movie theatre in 1935. It was shuttered on Monday, 24 August 2020. The owner of these theatres hopes that someone will take over them with the intention of maintaining them as local landmarks.

In Ontario, much of the province’s theatres have turned to selling food and beverages, as well as naming rights for seats, in order to stay afloat. The Fox, a beloved independent theatre in the Beaches neighbourhood in Toronto, began selling takeout popcorn, candy, wine and beer, in addition to naming rights for seats, in order to profit during the pandemic. The owner and programmer of The Fox says that it only covers a fraction of the theatre’s costs. Similarly, The Paradise Theatre, a Bloor Street independent venue, has created a bottle shop in their front lobby in an effort to generate revenue. Mayfair, a theatre in Ottawa, has also begun to sell naming rights. Patrons can pay to have their name grace theatre walls, seats, emergency exits, and even bathroom stalls. The only other major independent cinema in Ottawa, ByTowne Cinema, announced its plans to permanently close effective 31 December 2020. The owner of the theatre said in a statement: “it’s a business, and the business model just isn’t working now.”

Canadian independent theatres have been disappearing at an increasing rate over the last few decades. In Kelowna, British Columbia, the historic Paramount Theatre, which first opened in 1949, closed in 2016 after the company who owned the theatre was bought out by a developer, who changed the space into a retail shop and a restaurant. The economic burden of the pandemic threatens to be the last nail in the coffin for independent theatres. The death of the Canadian independent movie theatre is an epidemic of its own beneath the catastrophic coronavirus pandemic.

Jaclyn Pahl

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