Pandemic takes a big bite out of Quebec movie theatres

Cinema attendance in Quebec dropped by 77 per cent in 2020, with Montreal, Laval and the Outaouais hardest hit. While streaming services continue to shake up the industry, filmmakers, producers and theatre owners hope to see cinema bounce back.

14 million fewer Quebecers went to the movies in 2020, streaming services threatening theatres

Bruce Gurberg, owner and president of Ciné Starz in Montreal, says he's willing to bet on business eventually picking back up at his movie theatres. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC)

Bruce Gurberg smiles as he talks about the taste of movie popcorn and rattles off the list of films screening at his theatre in Côte-des-Neiges, despite the fact that last year his business was brought to a standstill by the pandemic.

"There's no question that our numbers have been down and it has not been pleasant," said Gurberg, owner and president of the Ciné Starz theatre chain.

"Being closed, with curfews, no food sales, it's absolutely been difficult."

Recent numbers published by the Institut de la statistique du Québec show cinemas across the province saw 14 million fewer visitors in 2020 than in 2019 — a 77 per cent drop, due largely to COVID-19 restrictions.

In March 2020, Quebec went into lockdown and cinemas were shut down. They re-opened with reduced capacity three months later when the summer looked hopeful. But by October, as Quebec was battered by another wave of infections, they were shuttered again as Premier François Legault imposed curfews and strict rules.

During this year's March break, theatres slowly welcomed movie goers back to their seats, but not without controversy.

Vincenzo Guzzo, president of Guzzo Cinemas, said most theatres wouldn't want to re-open without being able to sell popcorn and snacks, which represent half of their revenue. Premier Legault called it "popcorn gate" and the Quebec government agreed to compensate theatre owners for lost revenues from concession stands.

'Lots of protocols' for clients' safety

In the last few months, Gurberg says customers still seem hesitant to return to his five locations in Quebec and Ontario.

"There's been a huge drop," he said. "We notice the people that are coming are loving it, enjoying it. But there's still a lot of fear out there and a lot of people are not ready yet to give it a shot."

With all of Quebec currently in a green zone, cinemas can have up to 500 people per section with a maximum capacity of 7,500. Reservations are required, people who live at separate addresses have to sit one seat apart and face masks have to be worn unless you're silent and in your seat. Patrons can munch on popcorn but can't talk.

Movies are one of the non-essential activites where a vaccine passport is required to enter.

Theatres also have to have separate entrances, exits, food counters, and sanitary facilities for each area and staff must monitor access to them.

"We have lots of protocols here for your safety," said Gurberg, "and we are following all the rules and taking care of everybody."

Streaming in a home near you

Gabriel Pelletier, President of the Association des réalisateurs et réalisatrices du Québec, a Quebec film producers association, says COVID-19 has accelerated a global shift in how films are created and consumed.

While movie theatres were closed, he says more and more Hollywood productions debuted in people's living rooms.

"There's a window where films are supposed to be only on the big screens," Pelletier said. "That window is getting smaller and smaller."

Gabriel Pelletier is the President of ARRQ, a Quebec film producers association. He says it's becoming more and more common for streaming services to compete with theatres to be the first to release new films. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC)

Pelletier says streaming services mostly have an appetite for English-language content but he thinks it will only be a couple of years before they start to target Quebec's French films.

He says smaller, local productions are already going straight to independent cinemas and streaming services, which are willing to finance the films and help cut down on costs.

"Theatrical release is just one other screen in the whole scheme of things," he said.

"There is home viewing, you can see it on your phone, on your tablet... Different kinds of films are going to find different kinds of releases."

Community Arts

Arshad Khan, a Montreal filmmaker and member of the organizing committee for the Coalition of South Asian Film Festivals, says he'll never stop making movies designed for theatres.

Arshad Khan is a Montreal filmmaker and member of the organizing committee for the Coalition of South Asian Film Festivals. He says all of his films are designed for the big screen and cinema provides a community experience that streaming services don't offer. (Submitted by Arshad Khan)

As a Pakistani-Canadian artist, Khan says he lives for the "rich conversations" that happen after his film screenings, when people from different backgrounds and walks of life come together to discuss a shared experience.

"There's no way those conversations would have taken place were they watching my work on a streaming platform," he said.

"Cinema gives the opportunity of community development, community building, conversations and examining art," he said. "The four walls of the cinema and the sound design and everything... it goes to your heart."

Khan says there are many other filmmakers, producers and cinema owners who are passionate about the traditional, large format and will fight to maintain the central role of movie theatres in the business. And he says he'd like the government to look at how it can provide additional support to the Canadian industry.

"When you want your audience to have that experience or that intensity, you can't do it when they're sitting on their laptop or at home or on their phone, that can only happen in a cinema," he said.

"I think that the government should do its best at every level... to ensure that this important cultural institution is supported and doesn't die out," he said.

"We need to protect our arts and our culture."

Quebec cinemas are trying to come back after being twice shut down by strict public health rules. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC)

Pushing Forward

Despite the challenges he's faced over the past year and a half, Gurberg says he's willing to bet that people will always want to go to the movies.

He's opening a new theatre on Cavendish Boulevard in a couple of months and says he's confident attendance will eventually return to normal.

"There's nothing like a movie and a popcorn in a cinema," he said. "It's been difficult but things are looking brighter down the road."

Based on reporting by Kwabena Oduro