The classic film screenings at City Cinema will go on — even if only a few people are there to watch
'I want to live in a kind of a city where I can see those kinds of movies once in a while in a movie theatre'
He regularly watches some of the most memorable horror films in the history of cinema. But for Laurent Gariépy, there's perhaps nothing more terrifying than a bunch of empty seats.
"Unless there are really a lot of people at the door, which I kind of really doubt it, I will lose money," he said just before the screening of Rome, Open City — an Italian neorealist war drama directed by Roberto Rossellini.
"[The film is] groundbreaking … I thought it would have been better than that."
Gariépy is the man behind Classics at City Cinema, a series of regularly scheduled film screenings which runs independently from the theatre's programming of contemporary indie pictures.
He runs the shows on his own, doing everything from renting out the space, selecting the films, wrangling with the rights, marketing the screenings and promoting them on social media.
Gariépy, who is currently a French teacher, said he got the idea for the screenings four years ago after he moved to the Island from Montreal.
He said that back then, there were few options for people who wanted to watch classics films the way they were meant to be experienced: on the big screen.
"I asked [the former City Cinema owner] if it was possible to do that, and he said, 'Well, we don't really do it like that. But you can rent the theatre and do it on your own.' So that's what I did," he said.
In 2019, he took a break from running the screenings to visit his parents in Montreal and ended up having to extend his stay there because of COVID-19. The screenings resumed this October, the same month pandemic restrictions on theatre capacity were lifted.
Movie theatre attendance hit all-time lows worldwide during the pandemic. City Cinema was not the exception, with the 70-seat theatre barely scraping by for two years.
"There were some movies that were postponed because [we waited] for the seats to open more," Gariépy said. "But it's not those new movies that I was missing the most. It's just to see a movie with a lot, a lot, a lot of people around."
Figuring out what gets people in the seats, however, is tricky.
The classics programming for this month included the original Godzilla, two horror films from the 80s, the Nixon-era thriller The Conversation and the Rossellini film.
Gariépy said some genres seem to work better than others. Horror films are natural crowd-pleasers and he always makes sure to have a couple in his schedule. But even with those, things don't always turn out well.
"For The Hill Have Eyes, I thought that was a really well-known movie, and it even had a remake recently … and for now we just have four or five tickets sold," he said.
"It's hard to predict. And same thing: When I see that big, classic movies — things like flagship history-of-cinema movies — [don't] work well, we show in Italian the movie Bicycle Thieves by De Sica and it was maybe not sold out, but it was like half the room was filled."
'Little cultural gem'
Cheryl Wagner used to run the Charlottetown Film Festival. Before heading into semi-retirement, she had an accomplished career in television, most notably as a puppeteer who worked with Jim Henson.
"I used to jokingly say that I had built the puppet in Eraserhead," she said.
Wagner, who comes to the classic screenings when she can, said a big part of the reason why not many Islanders attend is that a lot of them don't know City Cinema exists in the first place.
"It's shocking, actually, when you discover how many people don't know we have a repertory cinema in Charlottetown," she said.
"That is the envy of Halifax, I can tell you. Because I lived in Halifax and worked trying to get another repertory cinema there up and running, and they would often reference how lucky Charlottetown was to have this little cultural gem."
Wagner said coming to the screenings has given her newfound appreciation for some of her favourite films.
While she said those movies could probably be easily found online, she said going to the theatre does make a difference.
"To watch Casablanca on television, you have no appreciation of the lighting, you know. But if you watch it on the big screen, you really do see what they were attempting — and achieved," she said.
"People need stories, there's no question. And without a film school here, what this offers us is the chance to look at things that were made earlier, that might be streaming on Netflix or Prime or something ... But you won't be able to experience it in the manner that the filmmaker was attempting to tell you that story."
Fear of subtitles
Gariépy often partners with the Carrefour de l'Isle-Saint-Jean when he screens French cinema classics, such as Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion, coming to the theatre at end of the month.
"[For French films] I find a lot of people show up to those because it's so hard to find, you know," said Christina Stewart, a former student of Gariépy's who regularly attends the screenings.
She said watching the French movies helps her practice her listening skills in that language.
Gariépy is also working with the Edmonton Movie Club, a non-profit that promotes Indian films across Canada and rents out the theatre on occasion, to start screening of the Satyajit Ray's renowned Apu Trilogy in June.
"A lot of people don't like subtitles and they might, with foreign films and with those older films, feel daunted a bit," Stewart said. "But that's an acquired skill, I find. And after, you know, half an hour, you don't really notice it."
Stewart said she didn't know much about film history until she started talking about it with her former tutor.
She said it's not necessary to be a film student to enjoy the classics, and those who feel intimidated by them should just "give it a chance.
"He just tells me what's playing, gives me a little synopsis, and then I show up and I watch it, and I usually enjoy it," she said. "If I didn't look at my watch or notice the time, then I know that that was a great movie."
A different kind of city
Gariépy said he's become more mindful of what's popular and what's not after Classics at City Cinema returned from the pandemic. He now tries to consider that when making his selections.
But no matter how many tickets he sells, he said he will still make room for "big landmark movies" like La Grande Illusion and Rome, Open City — even if those films, more often than not, end up costing him money.
"I still want to have them because I find it important to show those ones. Not just horror that maybe will work better, but I give [them] a bigger place," he said.
Those are the same kind of movies that he would watch at the Cinémathèque in Montreal, the same movies that drove him to open a video store he ended up running for seven years and that he wanted to talk about during a brief stint as a film critic.
In the end, he said it boils down to taste.
"That's what I like," he said. "Rossellini and Renoir are two of my favourite directors. And, like, ultimately I want to live in a kind of a city where I can see those kinds of movies once in a while in a movie theatre, right?
"I screen them, and I try to advertise it and speak … about those and try to make people come, and hopefully they will eventually come."