British Columbia·FINE ART OF SURVIVAL

For some independent cinemas in B.C., the pandemic could be a death knell

Independent cinemas in Canada have faced many hurdles in the past few years. Some operators worry the pandemic may be the final nail in the coffin. 

COVID-19 closures, growth in online streaming services make business a tough go

Movie theatres that chose to reopen this summer had to restrict the number of seats they offered in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The latest restrictions in B.C. means they have to keep their doors closed, for now. (REUTERS)

This is the last in a four-part series about artists, arts organizations and festivals trying to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read about the Eastside Culture Crawl here, the Goh Ballet's Nutcracker reboot here, and summer festivals trying to navigate an uncertain future here


Jessie August and her nephew Chris August had been looking to partner on a business in their community for a while. 

When operation of the local cinema, Raven's Cry Theatre, went up for sale in Sechelt, on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast, they felt it was a perfect fit. Chris is passionate about films, and Jessie could offer her skills in finance and administration. 

"We just wanted to give it a go and see how our individual skills kind of complement each other," Jessie August said. 

They purchased the theatre in March 2019. Almost exactly a year later, the pandemic hit B.C. and they had to shut their doors. The theatre has been closed ever since. 

Independent cinemas in Canada have faced many hurdles in the past few years. They have been squeezed out of the market for blockbuster films. There's increasing competition from streaming services. And now, some operators worry the pandemic may be the final nail in the coffin. 

In late November, movie theatres across the province were told to close again under the latest restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19 amid a growing spike in cases

August says she doesn't want Raven's Cry to be a potential source of transmission in her small community. But she's not sure how long they'll be able to last with no revenue. 

"There's a very real chance that we won't survive," she said.  

Blockbusters on hold

Even if the theatre were to reopen, few of the blockbusters it normally relies on have been released this year.

On Thursday, Warner Bros. Pictures announced that all of its 2021 film slate — including a new Matrix movie, Godzilla vs. Kong and the Lin-Manuel Miranda adaptation In the Heights — will stream on HBO Max at the same time they play in theatres.

So far August and her nephew have been keeping afloat with the occasional, socially distanced theatre rental and help from the federal government. Jessie and Chris are members of the Sechelt First Nation, which is also the owner of the theatre's building, and it has suspended their rent payments for the time being. 

The Raven's Cry Theatre in Sechelt, B.C., has been a hub of arts and culture in its community for about 30 years. (Google Maps)

August says those lifelines have been crucial to keep her business alive. She's trying to remain cautiously optimistic that she and her nephew will be able to weather the next few months. 

In the 30-or-so years the theatre has been open, it has become a community hub. Arts and culture groups rent the theatre and it attracts people from across the Sunshine Coast.  

"It'll never go away, I'm just I'm hoping that Chris and I are the ones that that are able to carry that forward," she said.

'Cinema transports you'

In Vancouver, The Cinematheque has also relied on emergency funding support for the past few months. 

The Cinematheque operates as a non-profit. As such, it has access to different types of government funding. 

The theatre's marketing manager, Lizzie Brotherston, says that support has been crucial. 

Lizzie Brotherston says The Cinematheque in Vancouver reduced its capacity to about a third when it was open during the pandemic, but now its programming is all offered online. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

"The Cinematheque isn't going anywhere. We'll do our best to continue to offer films to the people of Vancouver and we'll do that in whatever way we can," Brotherston said.

"Cinema transports you to many different places and helps you understand many different things that are going on in the world around you." 

Unique offerings

When the pandemic hit, the theatre did close for a few months.

It opened again in the summer, but with only about a third of its regular capacity. The Cinematheque now also offers many of its screenings online. 

Brotherston admits that the streaming market has become increasingly saturated in the past few years, but she says the types of films The Cinematheque offers — from directors like Italy's Federico Fellini and Wong Kar-Wai of Hong Kong — aren't readily available on services like Netflix. 

She says the cinema will likely continue its online offerings post-pandemic, but she's hopeful the movie centre's pre-pandemic success will continue for years to come.

"There is something very special about seeing a film in person with an audience and that kind of shared experience," she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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