Jessica Leonora Whitehead is an arts and sciences postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. Her research has appeared in such publications as the Canadian Journal of Film Studies and Mapping Movie Magazines, and she is currently working on a book project exploring Italian-Canadian cinema cultures.
The dawning realization of vast tragedy is, unfortunately, a common feature of pandemic history.
When the second wave of the Spanish flu pandemic hit Canada in the fall of 1918 – killing even more Canadians than the first – governments that had time to implement better processes were slow to act. In part, that was because Ontario’s provincial health officer J.W. McCullough insisted that closing schools, movie theatres and churches wasn’t necessary, even in early October. But Harold Fisher, the mayor of Ottawa, shut down his city on Oct. 5, adding that Mr. McCullough would eventually “wake up” to reality. Mr. Fisher was right: When more than 200 people died in Toronto in the two weeks after Ottawa’s lockdown, the province finally banned all public gatherings. The parts of Canada that hadn’t already locked down quickly followed. The risks around movie theatres were part of that era’s dawning realization, too: It only became clear to officials that theatres were vectors of infection at the time of that second wave.
Today, amid the third phase of reopening after COVID-19 lockdown, movie theatres are trying to get back to a kind of normalcy. On Friday, Cineplex Inc. became the first major theatre chain in the world to return all of its cinemas and screens to service, having implemented preselected “physically distanced” seating, mask requirements and new cleaning procedures. But with a still-murky future for the film and theatre industry – which had already been enduring long-standing revenue decline – there are lessons in how the same sectors endured the Spanish flu more than a century ago.
At first, exhibitors – many of whom were consulted directly – were happy to comply with 1918′s public-gathering order. Although Thomas Scott, the secretary of the Motion Picture Exhibitors Protective Association of Ontario at the time, seemed to resent that stores were not facing the same bans – calling for governments to impose a “partial closing” on them – he said the industry would do its part to protect the public.
While the bans led to financial hardships – in Winnipeg, theatres asked the city for $23,000 (more than $330,000 in today’s dollars) so they could pay their employees – exhibitors remained optimistic. Many used the time off to renovate, confident that they could easily recoup their losses when entertainment-starved soldiers coming home from the war – along with countless weekly moviegoers – were allowed to return to the cinema.
Eventually, however, some exhibitors decided to fight flu bans – some because they were losing too much money, others because they felt unfairly targeted, echoing Mr. Scott’s grievances. A common claim deployed by desperate owners was that the air in theatres was “better than the street” due to their ventilation systems; some even suggested that epidemic fears were overblown and health officials were overreacting.
Film production, in the meantime, was also affected. Nearly every Hollywood studio ceased production for five weeks, and many of the leading ones laid off their employees without pay. Film stars were infected by the disease; Harold Lockwood was one of the first stars to die of the Spanish flu, and Canada’s own Mary Pickford, the Toronto-born actor known as “America’s Sweetheart,” contracted the flu in 1919, but eventually recovered.
Masks were a hotly debated issue then, too. In October of 1918, the province of Alberta enacted a by-law that masks must be worn anywhere outside of individual homes, including in reopened theatres; advertisements for masks appeared in newspapers across the country as Canadians snapped them up. But some editorials made it seem that masks were dangerous, citing the hospitalization of a California woman who had a “break from sanity” after witnessing masked crowds. Hundreds of Albertans went on to flout the mask by-law.
Before the flu vaccine finally became commonplace, large influenza outbreaks continued to wreak havoc on North American communities after the 1918 second wave. Theatres in some North American communities were closed well into the 1920s because of rolling influenza outbreaks, curdling that initial goodwill. In the winter of 1920, for instance, exhibitors in the city of Topeka, Ka., refused to comply with another flu ban, prompting the dispatch of police to block theatre entrances.
Many of these elements are simmering during today’s COVID-19 crisis. While most Canadian exhibitors only endured lockdowns of between four and seven weeks in 1918, our current pandemic shuttered theatres for months. On the production side, the continued closing of the U.S.-Canada border means American actors and crew cannot yet work here, while lower-budget independent films face potentially fatal financial obstacles with insurance liabilities. A second COVID-19 wave or any further delays – including to the development of a vaccine – will only increase financial pressures on companies, and 1918 showed us that this can inspire more belligerence in time. And slow-and-steady, rightly, remains the plan: “Nothing significant will be shooting until after Labour Day,” Pinewood Toronto Studios chairman Paul Bronfman told the Hollywood Reporter. “Things will take time to get used to, production will take more time on set, and it will cost producers more money.”
There remains a sense of optimism among Canadian film producers, with Mr. Bronfman adding that “there’s a feeling that when the recovery happens, our production community is in the best position of anybody in the world to handle television and film.” But for Canadian exhibitors, 1918′s postban hope isn’t there. When the flu bans were lifted, the trade papers reported that film fans were “show-hungry,” with moviegoers returning in droves; today, thanks to the quality of TV programming and the rise of streaming services, the industry cannot assume that customers will simply come back. Staggered showtimes and reduced theatre capacities by as much as 80 per cent do not add up to long-term financial success, either.
After the Spanish Flu closings, the movie business grew to new heights with the vertical integration of the industry, which some film historians have suggested was facilitated by the post-1918 closing of many small mom-and-pop theatres. It remains to be seen if the current industry can also adapt – before we come to the dawning realization that it’s too late.
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