In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.
Failure is an orphan, they say, but that seldom stops people from assigning paternity. There were many factors that the director of Montreal's Cinéma Excentris could have blamed for the art-house cinema's recent closing, but the one she settled on launched a very public fracas.
Like people elsewhere, Montrealers go less often to movie houses than they used to, although it's not clear that this hurts a three-screen boutique cinema more than a multiplex. In any case, the open letter published on Excentris's website by general director Hélène Blanchet didn't linger on macro-industrial details. The real parents of Excentris's failure, she said, were the distributors who never gave the place a fair deal.
Too often, she said, Excentris bore the brunt of "the perverse effects of commercial strategies dictated by the big players in the industry," particularly those who benefit from "the strong concentration of distribution of films in this country." They steered too many of the more lucrative independent films toward the multiplexes, she said, depriving her theatre of crucial revenue.
"C'est là que le bât a blessé," Blanchet said, meaning that's where the problem was. More literally, her choice of words suggested that the distributors had beaten Excentris with a stick, as if it were a half-starved pit pony. To make it even plainer who were, and were not, her friends, Blanchet offered lavish thanks to each of her public and private benefactors, but not to any of the distributors who had provided films to Excentris since the place opened in 2011.
Blanchet didn't call out the villains by name, but everyone in the scene knew she was writing mainly about Les Films Séville (LFS), a dominant player in Quebec and the leading distributor of Québécois films. LFS president Patrick Roy had no doubts, for he quickly blasted back at Blanchet with an open letter of his own.
"It's much too easy to blame only the distributors, and particularly LFS," he wrote. He disputed Blanchet's facts, and was clearly stung by the charge that his company had knowingly done the dirty on her. "It would be dishonest to deny LFS' unwavering support for Excentris," he said, repeating the very same phrase – "soutien indéfectible" – used by Blanchet to praise the loyalty of her government partners. Roy affected to be surprised that she had not asked for his input: "We were never invited to participate in a frank discussion about the future."
The real cause of the failure, Roy countered, was poor management. Municipal and provincial governments had already spent "a lot of money" on the not-for-profit theatre, he said, and "we should all ask ourselves if the formula used [at Excentris] in recent years is really the best to promote Quebec and auteur films."
A few days later, Claude Chamberlan, a founding member of Excentris who left the board in 2012, piled on with a cutting comparison to Cinéma du Parc, a nearby art house with a similar mandate that seems to be thriving under the same commercial pressures. "Everything is working fine [at Cinéma du Parc]," Chamberlan told The Gazette. "The problem is with Excentris." Chamberlan is also artistic director of the Festival du nouveau cinéma, so his involvement with all parties in this feud is ongoing and intimate.
It's hard to understand why Blanchet would see any point in making war on LFS, given that she hopes to be back in business once she has settled with creditors. Aside from whether and how LFS may be involved in those discussions, poisoning relations between Excentris and its biggest supplier doesn't look like smart management.
In another way, Blanchet's gambit is not so surprising in a film exhibition community that has a history of airing internal beefs. Serge Losique, head of the Festival des films du monde (FFM), is a battler who has survived many such public tussles.
Last year, FFM general director Danièle Cauchard published a long personal attack on the director of the Quebec cultural enterprise body Société de développement des entreprises culturelles du Québec (SODEC), accusing Monique Simard of "cynicism and arrogance without limit." Cauchard is no longer with FFM, which SODEC is suing for repayment of more than $886,000 in unpaid loans.
Lamentations over Excentris's closing have already turned to speculation about other venues rumoured to be in development. The National Film Board is definitely planning a 135-seat theatre in its new downtown Montreal headquarters, now under construction and scheduled to open in 2017. Excentris already has a joint online venture with the NFB, so some kind of bricks-and-mortar synergy could follow.
Even without Excentris, Montreal theatres this week offered what amounted to a pocket festival of Quebec cinema: eight films, four of which had been playing for more than five weeks each. Another six Quebec titles were screened at the Cinémathèque québècoise. Centre Phi is preparing to repeat its role next month as host of the annual TIFF Canada's Top Ten Film Festival, which includes three Quebec titles. Also next month, SODEC is increasing its annual support for film distribution in the province to $5-million from $3.5-million.
All this activity and public support is a bit overwhelming for someone inured to the disdain and indifference that greets Canadian film in other parts of the country. In Montreal, it seems, no one is indifferent, and disdain is something to be shared in open letters.