NICE Member of the Month: Yukon Film Society, Yukon Theatre and Available Light Film Festival

NICE Member of the Month: Yukon Film Society, Yukon Theatre and Available Light Film Festival

We caught up with a very tired Andrew Connors of the Yukon Film Society and Yukon Theatre, who gamely answered our NICE Member of the Month questions at the close of the 2023 Available Light Film Festival. This year’s festival included 100+ films, concerts, creator talks and something very intriguingly called the ALFF Video Crawl.

The Yukon Theatre is the only operating cinema in a geographic area the size of the United Kingdom and serves audiences from the Mackenzie Delta, NWT, to Skagway and Haines, Alaska, and all 13 Yukon communities. Read all about it:

Tell us about Yukon Film Society and Yukon Theatre:

The Yukon Film Society is a non-profit film and media art centre based on the traditional territories of the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council and the Kwanlin Dün First Nation in Whitehorse.

Since establishing in 1984 as an exhibitor of independent films, the Society has grown to support film and media art creation and production through professional and artistic development; presenting cinema, exhibitions, festivals, and performances year-round; and distribute Yukon film and media art in partnership with the Klondike Institute of Art & Culture through the Available Light on Demand streaming platform.

YFS presents its marquee event the Available Light Film Festival (ALFF) each February. Canada’s largest film festival north of 60, ALFF brings audiences and creators together from inside and outside Yukon for a festival of cinematic arts that has growing reputation across Canada for its strong curation and its dedication to presenting film works in the best possible experience.

To support and promote the experience of cinema and a culture of cinema and media arts in the Territory, the Society operates the iconic Yukon Theatre twin cinema in downtown Whitehorse. 

Photo credit: CBC
What makes Yukon Theatre unique?

The Yukon Theatre was built in 1954 and is a cherished community building. Because of its iconic neon sign and its mid-century design, it’s is one of the most photographed buildings in Whitehorse. The Yukon is the only operating cinema in a geographic area the size of the United Kingdom and serves movie-goers from the Mackenzie Delta, NWT to Skagway and Haines, Alaska and all 13 Yukon communities. 

It’s been eye-opening and humbling to see Yukoners of so many different communities and walks of life attend movies at the Yukon Theatre. At least of half of the population of the Territory has attended a movie at the Yukon cinema since we re-opened in December 2021. The cinema offers an entertainment experience that is relatively low cost and it’s our goal to serve as many Yukoners as possible with our programming.

What sort of films do you show?

The Yukon Theatre screens first-run movies, independent films, documentaries, classics and art house films as well as hosts one-off special live performing arts events such as comedy shows and concerts. 

What are Yukon Theatre’s greatest challenges?

The Yukon Theatre’s greatest challenges are its age and its neglected state when we took over operations in 2021. We’re constantly doing emergency repairs and working to upgrade systems within the building to improve its life-safety systems, energy efficiency and operational sustainability.

Our other great challenge is balancing the demand of studios to have first-run films play all shows for weeks on end and our audiences and the community’s interest for more diverse programming on a regular basis. We also have a lot of arts and culture groups and NGOs and government agencies that want to co-present one-off special event screenings. 

What are your favourite compliments that Yukon Theatre receives from your audience?

My favourite compliments from our audience are when they thank us for re-opening this historic landmark and that we’ve put energy and resources into improving the experience of watching movies and re-connecting with their friends and neighbours at the cinema.

For many Yukoners, they’re returning to the Yukon Theatre after decades of not coming to movies there. Many share their memories from when the Yukon Cinema was one of only a handful of places young people could enjoy entertainment in Whitehorse. It was one of the few public places to go out that wasn’t a bar or a restaurant.

What’s a memorable film screening or event you hosted?

Early on in our tenure shortly after public health restrictions were lifted after the Omicron wave, we co-presented a comedy night with local theatre company, Larrikin Entertainment and it featured talents from Whitehorse and across the country: Jenny Hamilton, Britt Small, Becky Johnson and show-stealer, Shirley Gnome who closed out the night. The cinema was packed and the audience so ready to laugh together and let loose. There was a collective sigh of relief at being at a live show again. 

There was also a recent ALFF post-screening Q&A with Teresa Alfeld, director of Doug and Slugs and Me where the audience took the conversation down a rabbit hole to debate whether the band stubborn-mindedly went thousands of kilometres out of their way to perform in Dawson City Yukon in the early 1980s to defy a sign on Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall that proclaimed: “No SLUGS allowed.” That was a fun discussion.

Photo credit: Andrew Connors
How did you get your start in film exhibition?

I got my start in film exhibition after I became a filmmaker and moved back to Whitehorse in 1999 and joined the board of the Yukon Film Society. The independent filmmaking community was just starting to get going and there was lots of interest in independent film from the community so we turned our annual participation in the Moving Pictures: Canadian Films on Tour annual weekend into an international film festival which became the Available Light Film Festival. Those early years involved presenting films from a huge variety of formats: 16mm, 35mm, Beta SP, DigitalBeta, mini-dv, DVD and HDCAM. I don’t miss the days of having to wait with baited breath for the thrice weekly Greyhound to come up the Alaska Highway not knowing if the next night’s 35mm film was actually going to arrive in time.

What are your most popular concession items?

Popcorn with real butter. 

What projects are you considering for the future?

This year we’re building a stage and installing lighting and sound to support more regular live performance events 

in one auditorium; we’re making upgrades to improve accessibility and we’re doing upgrades to improve the energy efficiency of the building. In the longer term, we’d like to fully restore the building to a single mid-century jewel for the community to use in more ways than just enjoying cinema. By having a downtown cultural venue operated by our non-profit film organization, we will not only continue to bring people together to enjoy Canadian and international story-telling on the cinema screen, but we’ll also be providing a space for all sorts of cultural experiences and we’ll create workshop spaces to bring filmmakers and the community together for cinema and media arts learning and collaboration. The dream is that the Yukon Theatre will become a hub for cinema and media arts that YFS has long identified as a needed resource to support the culture and creation of cinema and media arts.