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James Brewer, left, and his daughter, Elodie Brewer, use their vaccine passports for the first time to visit East Vancouver’s Rio Theatre.Alia Youssef/The Globe and Mail

If anyone was going to come to the rescue, it had to be James Bond. Late on Friday of the Thanksgiving weekend, the Ontario government announced capacity restrictions were being lifted for movie theatres. While the new Bond film No Time to Die wasn’t the actual reason, a lot of people noted the coincidence as they toasted the decision.

“Well, all the nagging paid off!” wrote Nuria Bronfman with the Movie Theatre Association of Canada in a bulletin to MTAC members. With just a few hours’ notice, though, it was also a scramble – especially for independent theatres, already operating with limited resources. There was no time to prepare, never mind die.

“There was no real indication that this was coming,” says Daniel Demois, co-owner of three independent theatres in Ontario, who was excited, if surprised. While his theatres removed capacity rules that weekend, they reinstated some distancing measures afterward. “This is something our customers will prefer.”

And so the roller-coaster ride continues for movie theatres. Times have been particularly precarious for the country’s approximately 350 independent cinemas – from one-screen mom-and-pop operations to small chains such as Quebec’s Cinémas Guzzo – since COVID-19 gave them the grimmest plot twist of their lives.

“It’s been like treading water,” says Wendy Huot, who owns The Screening Room in Kingston, Ont. “At first I was worried about the existential future of the theatre. But now it just feels like we’re stuck in limbo.”

Even before the pandemic, Canada’s indie cinemas had been fighting a host of battles: the up-and-down quality of Hollywood product, the shortened amount of time it takes for a film to go from exclusive theatrical exhibition to streaming, and what some theatre-owners allege is a near-monopoly, with Cineplex’s 161 locations dominating about 75 per cent of Canada’s box office market share as of 2019, according to the Network of Independent Canadian Exhibitors (NICE). Early last year, the indies even sought regulatory respite from the Competition Bureau, arguing that content was being blocked or overly controlled.

Then came the lockdowns. Statistics Canada reports that the pandemic “hastily” turned the movie theatre industry’s profit margin from a positive average of 14.6 per cent since 2014 to negative 42.3 per cent in 2020. Operating revenue in 2020 dropped by 70.6 per cent compared to 2018.

“We didn’t have the ability to do curbside pickup,” Bronfman says. “Our curbside pickup is Netflix.”

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

While this has been a horror show for theatres across the board, indies operate at smaller margins, with less clout and in different conditions than Cineplex or the country’s second-largest exhibitor, Landmark. Even something like lobby size – generally much smaller than a typical multiplex – is problematic in physically distanced times.

Now, the after-effects of the pandemic include scarcity of content, with studios reluctant to release high-profile films to a not fully opened market; an increasingly shortened theatrical window; and inconsistent and ever-changing public health guidelines.

In Ontario, for instance, there was a period when cinemas could officially operate at 50-per-cent capacity. But once Huot factored in the physical-distancing math, she could only fill a fraction of that.

In Quebec, capacity restrictions were also lifted Thanksgiving weekend, but an in-theatre mask mandate was reinstated. “So it’s one step forward and one step backward,” says Mario Fortin, who operates three cinemas in Montreal.

This coming Monday, most B.C. theatres can join most other provinces and return to 100 per cent capacity. But in that province, the arts have felt like they’ve been playing second fiddle to other sectors during the pandemic. Some in the industry, for instance, were outraged when public health officials closed down theatres last November, but allowed restaurants and bars to stay open.

So this past January, Corinne Lea, who owns the Rio Theatre in Vancouver, made the ultimate pivot. “Screw the Arts. We’re a Sports Bar Now,” read the Rio’s marquee. “I like to think of it as performance art,” says Lea, who has been an advocate and an agitator for indie cinemas – but not only about pandemic-related matters.

Halfway through this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, things were in full-swing. Well, COVID-19-era full swing – so, maybe half-swing. But audiences were back and the buttery delight of it was almost palpable. Before a screening of the new Canadian thriller The Boathouse at the Rio that first week of October, Lea was on a Zoom call with indie cinema operators across B.C. They gathered for a round table to strategize – and for support. A fair bit of time was spent on the ongoing battle with the big guys.

In early 2020, the newly formed NICE went to the Competition Bureau. They argued that Cineplex has a stronghold on Canadian distributors and was blocking films from getting to indie theatres – with a negative impact on consumer choice.

“You’ll try and book a movie and usually the answer will be you’ll have to wait until it’s done at the closest theatre,” Demois says. “There’s not many other businesses where people will turn away your business because they’re selling it to someone else as well.”

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The Rio Theatre. On Oct. 25, most B.C. theatres can return to 100 per cent capacity.Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak

The Rio charges it has been locked out of big films, such as Parasite and Jojo Rabbit, for months. So if a moviegoer wants to see that film in that city, they have no choice but to see it at a Cineplex.

“This illustrates a systemic pattern of behaviour relevant to their market dominance that affects access to film content to independent theatres across the country,” Lea wrote to the bureau.

While the Competition Bureau would not reveal the outcome because of confidentiality, Lea says she is disappointed. “They did not help us at all. To survive this pandemic and then see that those problems are still there is very disheartening.”

Cineplex said the issue is not with them. “Cineplex does not own the rights to movies, we license them from Canadian distributors to play in our theatres. Ultimately, it is up to film distributors where they play their movies,” Melissa Pressacco, Cineplex’s director of communications, wrote in an e-mail.

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

Another concern raised by indies, particularly in small towns, is the length of time they say distributors insist that they must keep a movie in their theatres.

Gary Shilling, executive director of the Powell River Film Society in B.C., says if its Patricia Theatre wanted to screen, for instance, the latest Marvel movie, “you need to commit to two weeks of screening of their film exclusively – you’re not allowed to screen anything else.

“And in a little town of 20,000 people, after three, four nights, everybody who’s going to see the film has seen it. So you’re stuck with having to show a film that’s already saturated its audience.”

The Patricia and Terrace’s Tillicum Twin Theatres were part of VIFF this year, a first. Tillicum owner Diane Robinson was excited, but concerned about making space for festival films – not because of her customers, but because of Hollywood distributors. “If they refuse to give me a movie because I’m taking something that I feel is of value, then so be it. It’s a little bit of a war for the independents.”

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Employees at the Rio Theatre had to turn away some potential customers the first week after a province-wide COVID-19 vaccine mandate come into effect for certain venues.Alia Youssef/The Globe and Mail

Lea’s contention, though, is that Cineplex has such dominance in the market, distributors are compelled to put the chain’s wishes first. Canadian distributor Mongrel Media said that the Rio might not have been able to book certain films from its slate because the Vancouver cinema wasn’t offering enough daily screenings. Canadian representatives for major Hollywood studios Disney, Sony and Warner Bros. did not respond to an interview request.

But Giroux-Dallaire feels that there’s a we’re-all-in-this-together vibe since the pandemic hit. “Everyone needs to work together if we want to make sure that the industry gets back on its feet.”

Cineplex, meanwhile, is seeking more than $2.18-billion in damages from the U.K. chain Cineworld, which backed out of a deal to purchase Cineplex in June, 2020. Cineworld filed a counterclaim valued at about $55-million.

Hollywood loves happy endings, or at least silver linings.

One such silver lining to come out of the pandemic is Telefilm’s relaunch of the theatrical exhibition program, which recognizes the role cinemas play in getting eyeballs to Canadian films. Individual theatres are entitled to grants of up to $30,000, the chains up to $500,000.

And in a happy beginning, David Hawkes launched the refurbished Hollywood theatre in Vancouver during the pandemic. The cinema took part 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 rescued the beloved ByTowne theatre, after the art-house announced it was closing last December. And in Powell River, on VIFF’s opening day, a deal was closed to sell the Patricia to the non-profit society – a way to keep the theatre operating and solvent.

But will audiences feel comfortable returning to the movies? Or have habits changed for good?

Fortin, in Montreal, predicts a happy ending. “The human being still needs to go out,” he says. “To sit in a place that’s dark and warm and someone is telling them a story and they cry and they laugh together. They need that. Staying at home will not give you that.”

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