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The Revue Cinema, which has stood on Toronto's Roncesvalles Avenue since 1912.

On Friday afternoon, we posted a statement on the Revue Cinema’s social media channels that said we would be reducing capacity by 50 per cent in the Toronto theatre in order to promote social distancing, a COVID-19 precaution.

“Closing of places of amusement,” read a headline in The Globe and Mail on Oct. 18, 1918. My colleague Paul Moore of Ryerson University had been tweeting news clippings of the impact on the local entertainment industry during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Century-old notices of the forced closure of cinemas loomed heavily in my head as I woke up Saturday morning.

The Revue Cinema, which is operated by the not-for-profit Revue Film Society, has stood in its location at 400 Roncesvalles Ave. since 1912. It prides itself on being a safe and accommodating space. But as of Saturday morning, I could no longer guarantee the health and safety of our staff and patrons. It was heart-wrenching, but temporarily shutting down operations was the most logical and socially responsible thing to do.

Thanks to COVID-19, the future of movie theatres looks darker than ever

A meeting with the Revue’s executive committee was already scheduled, and the three-member executive shared my concerns. During the meeting, I got the call that the TIFF Bell Lightbox would be shutting down. Calls with other independent exhibitors confirmed similar discussions were under way.

I wonder how my counterpart in 1918, then faced with a municipal closure, dealt with the situation. That afternoon, we announced that our temporary shutdown, effective Sunday, would last a minimum of three weeks.

By Monday, a dozen other members of the recently formed Network of Independent Canadian Exhibitors (NICE) announced similar shutdowns. This isn’t easy for any of us. We’re not saving lives or settling diplomatic crises, but what we do is both culturally and economically important for the communities and neighbourhoods we serve.

Many of my colleagues would agree that the work of programming and managing an indie cinema is more often than not gruelling. We are all under-resourced workaholics, obsessed with putting on the best show possible. But much of that worry and stress melts away when the show goes as planned or when we know we’ve done good. Some screenings over the past few years really stand out: A packed house for Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, featuring a panel on food politics and a fundraiser for the Stop Community Food Centre; a restoration of Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda presented in its proper trans cinema context; National Canadian Film Day in 2016, when we screened three films by the late Don Owen, mere weeks after his passing, unaware that members of his family were in the audience and extremely touched by our tribute.

Then there are those “oh no” moments. I often think about the time we hosted a daytime school rental where the teachers requested we screen A Dog’s Purpose. None of them had seen it, and I and another staffer had to assist with a house full of 180 crying children. I can also claim responsibility for accidentally scheduling the red-band trailer of Deadpool before a family matinee of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Some awkward apologies ensued.

Our front-line team has also seen, and cleaned up, some horrifying things. Seriously, when things get back to normal and it’s once again safe to enter a cinema, please don’t leave your trash behind. We see you.

But we’ve also seen the children of some of our regulars grow up and head off to university. People who’ve been attending since we reopened as a not-for-profit in 2007 now have families of their own. One of our regulars, Marie-Antoinette, visits the cinema several times a week, sometimes for both evening shows. We engage with our community and respond to feedback on a personal level.

Where do we go from here? This industry has been hit by one existential crisis after another: the ever-dwindling theatrical-to-video window, the Fox-Disney merger that cut our access to the Fox catalogue, the decommissioning of our province’s film review board. And then there’s that recent thing about NICE going after Cineplex for what the group alleges are anti-competitive practices that are harmful to independents such as the Revue.

Due to the pandemic, there are no major studio releases planned until May. Universal Studios announced that its current theatrical releases, including The Invisible Man, will be available via streaming Friday. From first-run to art houses, this industry’s various business models are being destabilized.

I’m not sure what kind of movie business we’ll be returning to when this is all over, but when it is, we’ll fill that screen with all your favourites. Until then, I’m thinking of every projectionist, every popcorn slinger, every box office attendant, every film booker and every single person sweeping up the floors at the end of the night.

Eric Veillette is the programming director at the Revue Cinema in Toronto.

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