Ottawa

Spoiler alert: Donations save local cinema amid 'devastating' restriction

The owner of the O'Brien Theatre in Arnprior, Ont., worried a new COVID-19 restriction barring food from auditoriums would be the death knell of his cinema. Local residents had other plans.

New COVID-19 rule cuts into concession sales at Arnprior, Ont., movie theatre

O’Brien Theatre is more than a theatre, it's a 'significant landmark,' according to Arnprior Mayor Walter Stack. (Supplied by Kevin Marshall)

When the Ontario government shut down concessions at venues including movie theatres last weekend, Kevin Marshall thought the days of his already-struggling cinema were numbered. 

"People don't really want to sit and watch Spider-Man for two and a half hours without a drink and a popcorn," said Marshall, who has owned the historic, two-screen O'Brien Theatre in Arnprior, Ont, for the past 22 years.

Marshall feared he would have to lay off his entire staff when the new restrictions hit amid a surge in cases fueled by the rapidly-spreading Omicron variant, which also included capping attendance at theatres and other businesses to 50 per cent of capacity.

Marshall says his theatre "rarely" filled half of the seats during showings anyway, but the open-ended ban on snacks was "devastating".

Most of the box-office proceeds go to film distributors, making concession sales a lifesaver, he said. 

"Even just to stay open, it was probably going to cost me more money to heat the building than I was ever going to make from selling tickets at the front door," said Marshall, who considered selling the theatre building.

Owner Kevin Marshall has operated the O'Brien since 1999. (CBC)

That's when local teacher Chris Couper stepped in.

"They talked about closing their doors and that this really could be it for the O'Brien Theatre," said Couper, who runs a community message board on Facebook and spread the word about Marshall's plight. 

"The theatre kind of embodies everything that's great about Arnprior. It's a place that people can come, unwind and watch a film. And it's kind of [a] vanishing thing in small towns."

Money raised 'mind-boggling' 

The O'Brien Theatre is no mere business — it's a local landmark, said Arnprior Mayor Walter Stack. 

"I remember going to Saturday matinees for 15 cents," Stack said. "It is a significant part of our heritage."

The O'Brien has two screens. The largest auditorium, pictured here, has 292 seats. (Supplied by Kevin Marshall)

Couper convinced a reluctant Marshall to let him launch an online fundraiser with the modest goal of $12,000. As of Thursday, more than double that figure — just over $28,000 — was raised. 

"It's overwhelming," said Marshall. "It's mind-boggling that we're getting this kind of response."

Stack said he was "personally very proud of their true Christmas spirit and generosity."

Couper said the proceeds will also help Marshall "sleep" and "slow down" around Christmas.

"He's really helped me and my students out. So this is a chance for me to give back to him," said Couper.

The money raised is enough to keep the theatre operating, and the staff paid into the spring, Marshall said.

"[It's] a huge weight off my shoulders."

The O'Brien Theatre in Arnprior first opened in 1929, according to the cinema's website. (Supplied by Kevin Marshall)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Ottawa, originally from Cornwall, Ontario.

Story tips? Email me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca or DM me @gqinott on Twitter.

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