Cinema buzz

By Chris Creighton-Kelly, November 2013

Capital 6’s demise doesn’t discourage the rise of the boutique movie theatre.

So what do we already know for sure? Book stores are shuttering everywhere. CD shops are closing—those that remain open are mostly specialty vendors, many selling vinyl again. The publishing industry—books, magazines, newspapers—is struggling. A lot of folks are cutting their TV cable in favour of online content.

Oh yeah, online content. The new maxim has become: All information available to all people all of the time. 

And movies? The price of admission keeps going up as quickly as attendance keeps going down. Studies show annual movie-going figures (at least in North America and Europe) to be the lowest in 25 years. Victoria’s Capitol 6 multiplex cinema recently closed its doors.

So why would anyone want to fix up their cinema, trying to renew the idea of “going out to the movies”? I asked Sandy Oliver, self-described “owner/projectionist/popcornist” at the Star Cinema in Sidney. The Star Cinema has recently completed a $200,000 fundraising campaign and is set for its fresh, renovated opening this month.

“To me, it’s obvious,” Sandy said matter-of-factly. “People want to socialize. They come to the Star, they see friends, they chat in the line-ups and also after the screening. Sometimes they even make new friends.”

Is it really as simple as that? Sandy elaborated, “Of course, we offer mainstream films but we can also pay attention, and to a degree, even champion the small films. Films that have a niche audience, that otherwise people would not see. We offer choice,” she chuckled as she continued. “Even in the concessions area, we are different. Some people come just for our popcorn!”

Is it really so special? After all, as she admits, many films are the same that the large movie chains are showing in Victoria. “But our theatre is warmer, more personable, more local. People come here to connect with the story that is being told on the screen. Throughout history, stories have always attracted us as a species. Even with the internet, that has not changed.”

Sandy concludes with, “People feel safe. A woman can come alone and not be bothered at all. There is this small town feeling.”

I wondered if this is a CRD thing. Our demographic, especially Sidney, does skew older. Is it just seniors and “junior seniors” (over 55s) who still love a date night at the movies?

This time I turned to Kathy Kay, festival director of the Victoria Film Festival. “No, I do not think that renovating old cinemas is Victoria-centric. People still want to go out,” (Where did I hear that before!) “especially young people,” she responded. 

The film festival is renovating and re-opening its own movie house—The Vic Theatre, across from the Empress. I reprise the “why would anyone want to do that?”question. Kathy answers, “Well, it is risky. But we think people who love movies in Victoria will come out. We want to create The Vic as a destination spot, a place where something dynamic is happening.”  

Along the way to interviewing Kathy, I happened to speak with one of her colleagues, Eva Mitic, an insightful woman, half my age. I mentioned to her my 30-years-ago-just-arrived-in-Victoria fond memories of the Vic Theatre. Then named Towne Cinema, it was the only place in downtown to see independent cinema. Eva casually jumps in, “Oh, you mean the nostalgia angle.” 

Well, mmmm, yes. I guess I do not like to think of my older self as nostalgic—a state of being with many uncomfortable contradictions. But Eva skewered my unease in one quick comment. Maybe she was on to something. 

Star Cinema’s Sandy had recalled her first memories of going out to the movies as pyjama-wearing, in the back seat of her parents’ auto, sneaking peeks at “movies that kids should not be watching,” as her mom put it. Personally, I remember the thrill of going to the cinema with its large screen and booming speaker, sitting alone in the dark with hundreds of strangers, my arm around someone I had a crush on. Back then the word multiplex would have been used to describe some newfangled screwdriver!

Was I just nostalgic for a single screen experience? “Well, you know, the business model for a single screen cinema is not that great these days,” Kathy Kay remarked in an understated way. “The thing is though, that the festival does not see it solely as a cinema. It gives us a venue for special events year round. We can present free films, we can fundraise, we can partner for screenings, even mini-festivals.”

I ask her about the increasing tendency of different types of festivals to create special events year round, to cultivate roots in their communities when it is not festival time. “Yes, it is critical to do that, but we think it is important to keep the film festival as our signature event.”

Kathy tells me about about a couple who both love the Victoria Film Festival. One partner signs up as a volunteer, gets actively involved behind the scenes, loves the insider feeling of being part of a glitzy bash. The other person is more than content to check out the program, stand patiently in lines, chit-chat with strangers and watch wonderfully obscure movies. 

“We feel it is important to provide different layers of engagement for different audience members. Let people bite off as much of the festival as they want. With the Vic Theatre, we hope to give them an ongoing taste at any time during the year,” continues Kathy.  

She adds, “This is why having this dedicated venue is so exciting for us. We can do different things with it, down to serving different stuff at our concessions counter. I think people are looking for a unique experience, something unusual, something they simply will not find at the multiplex cinema. That’s what we can offer.”

Yet I can still hear the mantra droning incessantly in the digital background noise—All information available to all people all of the time. More cocooning. More pre-packaged content pumped into our home theatres, our laptops, our tablets, our phones, now even our smart watches. More corporate filtering of what we can and should watch.

All marketed as more choice. More convenience. More ease. Click your mouse, press a button on one of your 19 remotes, blink twice quickly and hold. All in the comfort of your own home. Hyper-connected but still alone.

Yes, of course, we want this. But we also yearn for Kathy’s “unique experience.” Something not corporate-devised. Something niche, something boutiquey, something authentic. A crunch of carrot at a farmers’ market, a provocative art exhibition, a tear at a spiritual retreat. A moment of reflection during a walk on the beach, a day trip with a laughing silly kid, food never before relished.  

If only someone could invent a place that smells and tastes like movie fun. That engages and delights; questions and replies; provokes and punctures your assumptions with crisp, invigorated, sometimes even innovative filmic content. That does all of that in a social setting, glistening with buoyant conversation—a setting which fills you with the pleasure of being seen, of being in the right place at the right time.

I heard someone was trying to respond to these needs by opening a newfangled thing called a single screen cinema.

Who needs online content anyway? It is so old fashioned. 

Chris Creighton-Kelly is a Canadian artist and writer who lives in the Victoria area. Along with France Trépanier, he is the co-author of Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today.