"I feel like I’m falling in love again with my work,” says a beaming Rafiq Khimani, general manager of Cineplex Cinemas Varsity and VIP Theatres in Toronto. “The Varsity is a gem. The people who know it don’t want anybody else to know about it.”
The Varsity is indeed a hidden place, discreetly tucked away in the city’s midtown Manulife Centre, a building currently undergoing extensive renovations. Khimani came to the Varsity from Cineplex’s splashier, downtown Scotiabank Theatre, where he was in charge for nearly a decade. At 55 years old, he was expecting to wind down his movie-theatre career. Cineplex convinced him otherwise by posting him to the classier, quieter Varsity.
The move has rejuvenated Khimani’s romance with cinema that stretches back to his teenage years in Karachi, where he saw The Great Escape with his father. The Second World War epic is still his favourite film. “It’s a story of human spirit,” says Khimani, a stocky chatterbox, talking in a Varsity lounge. “You’re faced with obstacles. You overcome them.”
Cinemas themselves face challenges – namely how to draw patrons in to watch motion pictures on their giant screens and pay dearly for the privilege of Twizzlers. Looking at the numbers, the movie business seems to be winning the fight. After a down year in 2017, U.S. theatre attendance was up 4 per cent last year, according to American media-measurement company Comscore. Combine the healthy attendance with record-high ticket prices and box-office receipts soared like Superman.
To Khimani, the secret to winning customers is presenting compelling narratives on screen. “Movies can transport you. They can transform you. They have that power, and it’s all about telling stories.”
Khimani’s own tale starts with his emigration in 1983 to Toronto from Pakistan, where his parents left behind a thriving business selling watches and repairing clocks to give their 20-year-old son superior opportunities. “They couldn’t speak English, but they came here anyway,” Khimani says. “It’s heavy, what they did for me.”
Initially, Khimani took business courses at Seneca College and worked in an office, where he was bored stiff. A personable fellow, he moved into hotel management, and, eventually, took up bartending at the Windsor Arms Hotel’s piano lounge. He loved it, but there was a problem: As a devout Muslim, his father did not approve of Molson and martinis. “He wasn’t happy,” Khimani says. “But I convinced him it was okay, because I wasn’t consuming alcohol myself.”
After getting married, Khimani shifted to restaurants first, and then to movie theatres, where the hours were more conducive to raising a family. He’s been with Cineplex for more than 20 years.
As a general manager, Kimani oversees every aspect of the cinematic experience, from staffing to maintenance to anticipating the nacho demand associated with the latest Avengers blockbuster. “Those are just tasks, though," he says, waving his hand dismissively. “It’s more about the people I work with and the people who come to the theatre.”
Asked about the patrons he has encountered over the years, Khimani mentions the elderly couple who come out only for the Metropolitan Opera screenings. The wife, Sheila, was a lifelong teacher who, because of illness, watches the telecasts from a bed-like motorized mobile unit. Her husband, Michael, a retired accountant, sits next to her. “He holds her hand throughout the whole opera," Khimani says.
Then there is the family from Ottawa who made the trip to Scotiabank Theatre’s Imax cinema a year ago for Solo: A Star Wars Story. The parents’ first date was at the same theatre in 1999, for a screening of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Upon hearing their story, Khimani gave them a tour of the Imax projection room.
“This is what we’re here for, creating lifelong memories,” Khimani says. “It’s about families choosing to be together. And it’s humbling that they’re choosing to spend time in your home.”
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