Paul Moore is an associate professor of sociology at Ryerson University, specializing in the social history of movie-going and the Canadian cinema business.
On Monday, Cineplex – the 1,695-screen chain that is the biggest in Canada – announced that it agreed to be purchased for $2.2-billion by the 9,498-screen British company, Cineworld.
It’s an appropriately grandiose name for the company, which reflects our cultural moment of massive, monolithic blockbusters. If the sale is approved as expected, the resulting global movie-theatre chain, which had already acquired Regal Cinemas in the United States in 2018, would join forces like a team of superheroes from a cinematic universe to become one of the largest anywhere on Earth – an overflowing, megasized network of megaplexes. Will Canada help fend off the emergence of China as the world’s biggest movie market? Or will Canada just be a bit player in the team, with Ireland, Poland and Bulgaria?
But with Hollywood currently obsessed with sequels – tapping existing intellectual property to deliver us comfortable and familiar nostalgia – this acquisition feels like a sequel, too. The actors and names are different, but we’ve seen this one before.
It has all the feel, for instance, of the century-old silent-movie melodrama from 1919 – the year Canada’s original national movie chain, Allen Theatres, was sent packing. Brothers Jules and Jay Allen built the Canadian movie-palace chain on the strength of the exclusive Canadian franchise for Paramount-Famous Players movies, the pre-eminent trademark of early Hollywood, which was already attracting the scrutiny of antitrust regulators in the U.S. But when Paramount co-founder Adolph Zukor tried to buy them out, they refused to sell. Instead, Nathan L. Nathanson – who cannily named his fledgling chain Canadian Paramount – became president of Famous Players Canadian, building an unsurpassed chain of Capitol Theatres coast to coast, which eventually ran almost all other competitors, including Allen Theatres, into the ground.
Or this could be the classic black-and-white drama from 1939, the year rumours first emerged that British Odeon Cinemas was scoping out the field in Canada. Formally launched by Mr. Nathanson’s son, Paul – a prelude to Nathan Nathanson’s ultimate split with Famous and Mr. Zukor – Canadian Odeon began patriotically, promoting British films, but soon just ended up splitting the market for the same old Hollywood movies.
Or this could be the big-budget blockbuster from 1979, when Garth Drabinsky and Nat Taylor opened the Guinness world-record 18-screen (and later 21-screen) original Cineplex in the basement of the Eaton Centre. Multiplexes revolutionized the activity of movie-going with novelties such as shopping mall mini-theatres, two-dollar Tuesday admissions and using real butter in the popcorn, and they let Mr. Drabinsky go on a spending spree, first buying Canadian Odeon Theatres in Canada, then merging with Loews and others in the U.S. In 2001, though, the house of cards came crashing down, and Cineplex-Odeon retreated to Canada.
Or this could be a remake from 1999, which is when the herald of this week’s acquisition news, Cineplex president and chief executive Ellis Jacob, founded Galaxy Cinemas. Backed with Canadian financing from Onex Corp., Galaxy embarked on a mission to build mini-megaplexes in mid-sized cities such as Midland, Ont., and Medicine Hat. Galaxy gradually felled its big-city Goliath competitors: first Cineplex, then Empire and ultimately ending Paramount’s reign over Famous Players. In 2005, in partnership with Scotiabank, Cineplex connected (and collected) all our national dreams in Scene points from St. John’s to Vancouver Island.
As part of Cineworld, those links will now be part of a global chain – Toronto alongside New York and London, but also Lethbridge alongside Leeds, Lodz and Little Rock.
Once upon a time, Canadian cultural nationalists would have decried the end of Canadian-owned movie screens: “We had no mass media of our own to counteract a false impression that Hollywood gave, not just to the rest of the world, but to ourselves,” Pierre Berton said to the CBC in 1975. And they wouldn’t have been wrong, necessarily; Quebec-owned regional chains (France-Films, Guzzos) accompanied a relatively healthy filmmaking scene in La Belle Province. But in English Canada, it’s always been a sad story. Canadian film histories have forlorn titles such as Embattled Shadows and Torn Sprockets, or clever twists such as So Close to the State(s), but they all boil down to the same point: Canadian Dreams and American Control.
Just 20 short years ago, Galaxy Cinemas represented a potential alternate reality. But Mr. Jacob’s takeover of Cineplex and Famous Players didn’t come with flag-waving nationalism; Cineplex has relied on Hollywood movies (and increasingly Chinese, South Korean and Indian movies) just as Cineworld will – and just as Mr. Drabinsky, Mr. Nathanson, and the Allens did, before them.
Movie theatre chains, like cinema itself, were born on a global stage. The acquisition of Cineplex only reminds us that remains a familiar story.
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