Indie theatres say they're last in line for movies because of Cineplex

Independent theatre owners say they can't show the films they want until the larger chains like Cineplex Entertainment and Landmark Cinemas are done with them, which the indies say is taking longer than ever and hurting their business.

Wait times for films now taking up to 6 months, owners say

Corinne Lea of Vancouver's Rio Theatre is among the independent cinema owners who say they're the last in line to acquire films — stuck waiting until larger chains, mainly Cineplex Entertainment, are finished with them. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

In April, Everything Everywhere all at Once starring Michelle Yeoh was released theatrically across the country. The film hit streaming services in May and came out on DVD and Blu-ray in July. On Oct. 10, Vancouver's independent Rio Theatre was able to book the film for the first time. 

Owner Corinne Lea says these wait times are getting longer.

Theatres like hers used to get such films within two or three weeks of their initial release, she says. 

"Now it's as much as six months to a year," she told CBC News.

"It's often streaming online. You can watch it on the plane, you can see it everywhere else but our theatre."

Lea is among the independent theatre owners across the country who say they are last in line to acquire films. They say distributors tell them they must wait until larger chains — mainly Cineplex Entertainment — are finished with movies, which the indie exhibitors say is taking longer than ever and hurting their business. 

Rachel Fox, who handles bookings for the Rio, says she's been told by distributors that if a Cineplex anywhere in Vancouver is playing a film, she can't book it. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

"It's quite often the case that we are not allowed to play a film while that film has already been released to rent online," said Wendy Huot, who owns the Screening Room in downtown Kingston, Ont. 

Rachel Fox, who handles the booking for the Rio, says she's been told by distributors that if a Cineplex anywhere in Vancouver is playing a film, she can't book it. 

She says she asked about the film Elvis after it became available to stream on Crave and was told no. She says the theatre is still not able to book Top Gun: Maverick, which was released in May. 

"Every Monday we have to send a distributor a kind of a sheepish email asking if a film has cleared Cineplex, meaning if the box office return was low enough over the weekend that something else is bumping it out of play," said Fox.

She says the theatre will also have films pulled if Cineplex becomes interested in them, often around Oscar season.

The financial pressures of the pandemic might have marked a change in how Cineplex is approaching theatrical releasing, says Joseph Clark, assistant professor of film at Simon Fraser University.

The Rio Theatre, in Vancouver. Theatres not part of the country's biggest chains make up just 11 per cent of the market, according to Cineplex. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Independent theatres "have always had to wait until the big chain, Cineplex, has been done with big studio releases. But now they're having to do that with kind of big, successful festival films and so on that were always distributed by independent distributors," Clark said. 

Cineplex said in a recent release it has focused on "partnerships with non-traditional studios" and is running more "international product" — the kind of films Clark said would have traditionally played at independent theatres. 

Cineplex also said its box office earnings from September were at 52 per cent of those from the same month in 2019. 

In Canada, Hollywood movies tend to be distributed by their studio — Warner Bros. made and handles Elvis, for example — while independent films often go to Canadian-based distributors. 

Several of those distributors including Warner, Toronto-based Mongrel Media and Elevation Pictures — which handles Everything Everywhere all at Once in Canada — declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests.

Cineplex declined an interview request. In a statement, a spokesperson said: "Ultimately, it is up to film distributors where they play their movies."

Wendy Huot, owner of the Screening Room in Kingston, Ont., says her three-screen theatre often can't get movies even once they're available online. (Submitted by Wendy Huot)

The company had 75 per cent of the box office market share in 2019, according to a 2021 investor report, followed by Landmark Cinemas at 12 per cent and the Quebec chain Cinémas Guzzo at two per cent. All other theatres combined totalled 11 per cent.

Landmark CEO Bill Walker said in an email that his company does not request any limitations on where distributors play their movies. 

One executive at a Canadian distributor isn't aware of any pressure coming from Cineplex to keep films from playing in other theatres.   

"There's never been any — at least, that I've ever witnessed — anything that's Cineplex or anybody else trying to leverage their place in the market," said John Bain, head of acquisitions and distributions at LevelFILM. 

"Hey, but we live in the real world, and they have 75 per cent of the theatres in Canada and you've got to consider that when you're making decisions."

Bain says there are many reasons — the proximity of other theatres, costs for the distributor — why a film might play in only one theatre in a given city. He concedes that the increasingly short turnaround between a film's theatrical and streaming releases add to the challenges for independent theatres.

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"The economics of independent film is a little trickier theatrically these days to make money," said Bain. 

He says he has concerns about the health of independent cinemas in the country. 

"There's far fewer than there used to be. They really kind of undergird Independent film and feature films," he said. "It's important for me that they be healthy, but in the end also all the stakeholders are making decisions that maximize their profit, including distributors and theatres."

The Network of Independent Canadian Exhibitors, an alliance of 79 independent theatres, including the Rio, complained about all this to the Competition Bureau in March 2020, alleging Cineplex has a too-dominant position in the market, in violation of the Competition Act. 

The bureau would not confirm if it is investigating, citing legal obligations around confidentiality. 

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As film audiences move from cinemas to streaming, there's a push in the movie theatre industry to change how it operates to get people in seats.

The nature of Canadian competition law makes it difficult to say whether there could be a successful legal case, says Jennifer Quaid, an associate professor with the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa.

Determining whether one company has too much leverage over a market is a "contextual evaluation," she said. 

"There isn't a definition that says it's X per cent of the market."

Quaid also says there aren't many cases that move forward on abuse of dominance and restrictive trade practices, which makes it especially difficult to speculate on this case.

The number of theatres that could show a movie used to be limited by the number of prints that existed, each of which had a cost associated with it. The distribution process is now digital, but Huot says distributors haven't shifted their practices. 

She says she's willing to pay the same rates for films as the multiplexes, and would like to know what needs to happen for the Screening Room to have access to new releases.

"We're not a discount, second-run theatre, we're just second-run because we can't be anything else," she said.


Joseph Pugh is a writer with the Entertainment department at CBC News. Prior to joining CBC he worked with the news department at CHLY, Nanaimo's Community radio station, and taught math at Toronto's Urban International School. He can be reached at joseph.pugh@cbc.ca

With files from Lisa Xing