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People walk past a movie theatre in Montreal, one of the few cities in the country currently allowing cinemas to operate, on Feb. 27, 2021.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

A strange thing happened at Sunday’s Academy Awards: someone in the movie business actually mentioned movie theatres. “Please watch our movie on the largest screen possible,” Nomadland star Frances McDormand said after her drama won the Oscar for best picture. “And one day soon, take everyone you know into a theatre, shoulder-to-shoulder in that dark space, and watch every film that is represented here tonight.”

That McDormand was the only person to talk about cinemas during an evening dedicated to the importance of cinema shouldn’t be too surprising for those paying attention. Theatres have been the first to close and the last to reopen since the start of the pandemic, yet there has been little noise – from performers, producers, studios and, in Canada, elected officials – as to how theatre-owners should expect to emerge from the crisis.

Anxiety in the Canadian exhibition sector grows by the day. Thanks to a robust vaccine campaign in the United States, increasingly more American theatres are reopening and loosening capacity restrictions, paving the way for a genuine summer-movie season – a parade of hits that threatens to bypass Canadian theatres and audiences completely. According to the Movie Theatre Association of Canada (MTAC), about 90 per cent of this country’s cinemas are currently shuttered, and there’s no clear timeline as to when that might change.

“Independent cinemas are hanging on by a thread,” says Nuria Bronfman, executive director of MTAC. “If we can’t open by the summer, and in the absence of substantive government assistance, 20 to 25 per cent of independents here will shut down forever.”

Last week’s federal budget delivered a fresh blow of bad news. While Ottawa noted that “cultural experiences are central to our well-being” and pledged to give hundreds of millions of dollars to the arts – $200-million for “major festivals,” another $200-million for “community cultural events, outdoor theatre performances, heritage celebrations and local museums,” up to $50-million for the live-music industry and $23.2-million for the National Arts Centre – movie theatres were ignored.

In February, MTAC sent a letter to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland requesting “urgent support” for the domestic exhibition sector, which employs more than 15,000 people.

Noting that theatres must not only combat government-mandated shutdowns but also “tectonic shifts” in consumer behaviour and film supply, MTAC outlined two immediate steps that Ottawa could take to help. First, extend the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS), which are both expiring in June. Second, establish relief funding for all cinemas, regardless of size or geographic distance from major cultural centres (two factors that hindered assistance rolled out through a $1.7-million Telefilm program last year).

MTAC did not receive a response.

COVID-19 isn’t the only thing killing movie theatres

“One problem is that we haven’t put our hand up before for help,” Bronfman says. “This budget says that the government does not see cinemas as cultural stakeholders. That they forget who is showing Canadian films to the Canadian public.”

As part of a statement provided to The Globe and Mail this week, the Department of Finance Canada said that its 2021 budget “extends many of our COVID-19 support measures for businesses into the fall of 2021.” But the ministry did not address the exhibition industry specifically.

There is, however, a made-in-Canada solution available, which MTAC highlighted in its letter. In Quebec, Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC) has provided grants for exhibitors that are incorporated in the province: $16,000 per screen, $150,000 for those with more than 10 screens and $400,000 for companies with more than 35 screens.

MTAC estimates that applying such a measure to the rest of Canada would cost less than $37-million. In the context of Ottawa’s new commitment to film-financing agency Telefilm ($105-million over three years) and its $100-million Short Term Compensation Fund to help film and TV productions insure against COVID-19-related shutdowns, a national cinema-relief package would represent, according to MTAC, “a modest contribution to preserve an important part of Canada’s film industry.”

“The help from SODEC was welcome, which happened because cinema culture has always been important in Quebec,” says Mario Fortin, who operates three cinemas in Montreal, where theatres are currently allowed to operate but are constrained by capacity restrictions and a curfew. “But we have to look at it from a Canada-wide perspective.”

SODEC’s plan is not an outlier. In the U.K., more than 200 cinemas received funding last year from a £30-million pot allocated by the British Film Institute, with another 200 theatres able to access £16-million in grants from the government’s £1.57-billion Culture Recovery Fund. And in the U.S., theatre-owners will have access, albeit after much delay, to the US$15-billion live-arts fund set up by the Save Our Stages Act.

“CEWS and CERS were helpful, but it’s difficult to operate when you’re closed and have lease commitments and fixed costs,” says Ellis Jacob, chief executive officer and president of Cineplex, which is currently operating 27 of its 164 theatres (or 16 per cent of its network). “We’re one of the hardest-hit sectors, even though we have a fantastic record of health protocols and keeping people safe.”

According to MTAC, America’s National Association of Theatre Owners, the Global Cinema Federation and the Union Internationale des Cinémas, there have been no reported cases of in-cinema COVID transmission globally – a situation that the organizations and various experts attribute to the unique conditions of moviegoing: largely silent, mostly masked patrons who are spaced out, facing one direction, in a typically high-ceilinged environment.

In its request for federal relief, MTAC underlines that theatres are integral to supporting Canadian culture. So should, as some Canadian filmmakers have regularly suggested, exhibitors be mandated to screen homegrown cinema? On this issue, both giants like Cineplex and independent theatres, which were at loggerheads over film-distribution tactics prepandemic, agree.

“Exhibition is not considered with a lot of the Telefilm stuff when it’s developed. Production is covered, but there’s no way to incentivize playing the movie – the films don’t get the promotional dollars they need to make a splash,” says Daniel Demois of Toronto’s Fox Theatre and Kitchener’s Apollo Cinema. “It’s a circle. It has to be done all at once, on all sides.”

“Our philosophy is that we want to support Canadian productions, but I don’t think a quota is the way to get there,” Cineplex’s Jacob says. “We’re a big supporter when it comes to playing Canadian films and communicating with Canadian producers and distributors.”

Says Wendy Huot of the Kingston theatre The Screening Room: “I’d argue that when we’re playing Canadian films, we’re doing the work of advertising those films. We’re effectively marketing them.”

MTAC’s Bronfman adds that while “the marketplace should dictate what films are shown,” there is room for flexibility. “Propose something to us, give us something to work with. This could be a win-win situation. When we’re able to open, we’ll be looking for content.”

Meanwhile, Hollywood’s summer movie season approaches – unofficially kicking off May 28 with the release of A Quiet Place Part II – and with it a make-or-break moment for the industry at the best of times.

“We’re going to miss some of the summer, there’s no question. It’s just a matter of how much,” says Bill Walker, CEO of Landmark Cinemas, the country’s second-largest exhibitor, which has just one of its 45 locations operating.

“We’ve seen a strong desire from audiences in other countries to get back to the theatre,” Jacob adds.

“I thank the government for what they’ve done, but for an industry that they consider such an important cultural activity, they could do a lot more.”

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