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'Do you recognize these two people? This happened today from 5:38-5:42 p.m. and we are devastated,' Cinemas tweeted out on Feb. 23, along with security footage that shows two individuals slash across more than half of a movie screen with a Cinemas

Last month, two men went to the movies. Dressed in black hoodies and face masks, they entered a Landmark Cinemas theatre in Kitchener, Ont., and walked into an empty auditorium. One of them slashed the movie screen and sprayed a noxious substance into the air before fleeing. The theatre had been slated to play Palthu Janwar, a Malayalam-language film.

Eight days later, someone entered a Landmark theatre in Calgary and let loose with a can of pepper spray in the concession area, forcing it to be evacuated. Around the same time that day, some 300 kilometres away at a Landmark in Edmonton, another individual released pepper spray inside the theatre, according to police. A Tamil film, Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu, premiered a couple of days earlier.

The incidents – the first on Sept. 10, and the other two on Sept. 18 – were just the latest in a continuing campaign of vandalism waged at movie theatres showing films in South Indian languages, such as Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. The Globe and Mail has confirmed that around 20 theatres, including Cineplex Inc., Landmark and other owners, have been hit in at least 22 incidents since 2015.

This year has seen more vandalism than any other, with 10 cinemas targeted to date, and in a much wider swath of the country. Previous incidents have been concentrated in Southern Ontario, but vandals slashed a screen at a theatre in Montreal and cut two more at a cinema in Surrey, B.C., earlier this year, in addition to the incidents in Alberta.

Film distributors contend a turf war is under way, with criminals using vandalism and the prospect of harming moviegoers to intimidate rival theatres into not showing South Indian language films – thereby cornering a lucrative market where popular films regularly sell out. The tactics appear to be working: Cineplex and Landmark are refusing to screen certain films over safety concerns. Distributors say it’s challenging to find theatres willing to take on some films, and movie houses are demanding hefty deposits and added security before screenings.

The Decibel: The unsolved mystery of vandalism at movie theatres in Ontario

Even after two recent arrests, the vandalism has not stopped. “I’m glad that at least two suspects were caught,” said Saleem Padinharkkara, a film distributor whose company is based in Kitchener. “But there is definitely a conspiracy side to this that needs a deeper investigation.”

Who exactly is responsible is a mystery. In July, Halton Regional Police Service, which covers an area west of Toronto, arrested and charged Mohammad Yousafzai, 38, with five counts of mischief over $5,000 in connection with a string of incidents in February of this year, and two others in November, 2021. In February, vandals sliced up three movie screens at a multiplex in Burlington, Ont., two screens at a theatre in Oakville, Ont., and one more at a cinema in Waterloo, Ont., – all on the same day. Each theatre, police said later, was screening a Telugu-language film called Bheemla Nayak.

Police also charged Dean Priestley, 30, in connection to incidents in November, 2021, in which movie screens were cut at two different Cineplex theatres.

A spokesperson for Halton police said the force will work with departments in other jurisdictions to investigate any new incidents, but added it has been unable to establish a motive.

After the three Landmark locations were targeted last month, a spokesperson told The Globe that the company believes the incidents are connected to similar acts of vandalism that have occurred in recent years, and are meant to dissuade the theatre chain from showcasing certain films. Landmark has opted to stop playing select Tamil and Telugu movies as a result, the spokesperson added.

The vandalism first started in the Greater Toronto Area around 2015. In the years prior, theatre chains had started expanding into more international fare. Cineplex, for example, added Tamil films to its roster. The GTA is home to a growing number of South Indian-language speakers, a demographic movie exhibitors were eager to tap into. According to the 2021 census, a total of 220,300 Ontario residents list Tamil, Telugu or Malayalam as their mother tongue.

Cineplex’s foray into the market was short-lived. The company has not screened any Tamil films in the GTA since 2016, after vandals slashed screens and sprayed noxious substances at three of its locations in relation to an action movie called Theri. “We made the decision years ago to pause screenings of titles in Tamil due to very real threats and incidents in our theatres,” said Sarah Van Lange, vice-president of communications at Cineplex, in September. “We recognize that this is disappointing … however, our steadfast commitment to the well-being of our guests and our team is paramount and will not be compromised.”

Ciné Starz owner Bruce Gurberg, who operates six theatres in Ontario and Quebec, is prepared to pull South Indian films if his movie houses are targeted again. His theatres have already been hit three times since 2020, with screens cut in Mississauga, Burlington, Ont., and Montreal. After the most recent incidents in February, Mr. Gurberg directed his managers to deliver a message to distributors: “The next time my screen gets cut,” he said, “I will not run any of their movies at all.”

Mr. Gurberg now requires substantial deposits for all films running at Ciné Starz, and has distributors sign contracts stipulating they will cover the costs of any damages. He does not know who is behind the vandalism campaign, he said, but notes a lot of finger-pointing is going on.

Indeed, after a number of incidents in 2016, rumours circulated on social media that people connected to three independent theatres in the GTA were responsible. The theatres – Woodside Square Cinemas in Scarborough, Albion Cinemas in Etobicoke, and York Cinemas in Richmond Hill – put out a statement denying any connection to the vandalism, and told The Globe last year that any allegation of their involvement is “categorically false.”

Woodside has long screened Tamil films, while Albion switched from featuring mostly Hindi movies to add more films in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam after it was sold roughly a decade ago. York Cinemas, meanwhile, started operating in 2012. Records show all three theatres are currently operated by Yalini Manoharan, who also runs two cannabis stores in the GTA.

“Nobody connected with our theatres has ever been involved in attacks on rival theatres,” said Brian Shiller, a lawyer for Ms. Manoharan. “Any repetition of the false allegation would be a repetition of a defamatory statement.”

Asked whether Ms. Manoharan’s cinemas have been targets, Mr. Shiller said “the theatres have been targeted on multiple occasions in the same fashion as the other theatres. There have been several incidents and the police have been notified.” Pushed for specifics, Mr. Shiller cited one incident of vandalism fitting the pattern of the others, when a screen was “ripped” at York Cinemas in October, 2019, and the theatre pulled a Telugu movie. (Theatres in Kitchener and Whitby were targeted around the same time.)

York Regional Police confirmed the incident was investigated, but no suspect was found. A spokesperson for Toronto Police Service said there have been no reports of vandalism involving torn movie screens or pepper spray at the addresses for Woodside and Albion theatres since problems began in 2015.

Ms. Manoharan has recently expanded her theatre business, taking over a former Ciné Starz location in Mississauga, where four screens were cut in 2020. It now operates as Central Parkway Cinema.

Mr. Padinharkkara, the film distributor, said a number of theatres recently received e-mailed threats connected to Ponniyin Selvan: 1, an adaption of a popular Tamil historical epic published in the 1950s. (His company, KW Talkies, paid about $200,000 for the Canadian distribution rights.) Cineplex decided to screen only the Hindi and Malayalam versions of the film – even though the original is in Tamil – while Landmark is not showing any version.

Some theatres that received threats backed out of screening the movie, which premiered on Sept. 29. The sender of the e-mail threatened to tear up screens, release “toxic” substances and send employees to the hospital unless the theatres stopped playing movies from Mr. Padinharkkara’s company. York Cinema, which is not showing the movie, received a similar threat, a copy of which Mr. Shiller provided to The Globe.

Jeff Knoll, whose theatre in Oakville, Ont., also received the e-mail, opted not to pull the film. “If I’ve got an audience that wants to see a movie, particularly at a time when Hollywood films are in short supply, we’re going to play the movie,” he said. “I’m not going to be threatened or scared.”

Two screens were slashed at his theatre,, in February. Mr. Knoll said he now expects distributors to cover the costs of any damage, and chip in for added security.

The continuing intimidation tactics are frustrating for Mr. Padinharkkara. He first entered the film distribution business in 2019 because he wanted to see South Indian movies in a wider variety of theatres, including at major chains such as Cineplex and Landmark. The prospects are looking bleak, though, as the vandalism is showing no sign of abating.

“They definitely want to inflict financial damage to me and restrict my ability to get movies,” he said of the perpetrators. “More than us as a business, I think the bigger victims are the community.” Until the issue is resolved, moviegoers will have less choice over what they can see in theatres – and in which languages.

With a report from Stephanie Chambers

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