Member of the Month: The Screening Room

Member of the Month: The Screening Room

This month we are excited to feature The Screening Room, the only cinema in the bustling downtown of Kingston, ON. With three screens and an exciting program, there is always has something to discover at The Screening Room. Many alumni from Queen’s University think fondly back to their days discovering the world of cinema in its beautiful and distinct auditoriums.

The Screening Room also has a great Twitter personality, we always recommend giving them a follow. Owner/operator Wendy Huot is a longtime NICE member and a member of our Board of Directors!

Tell us about The Screening Room:

The Screening Room is a 3-screen movie theatre located in Kingston Ontario (population: 135,000). For a city of its size, Kingston has a healthy & growing downtown; Queen’s University is a 15 minute walk away and we have a very large retired population. 

We occupy the second floor of a building (built in the 1890’s) that was originally a department store.  The cinema started out as a discount second-run movie theatre in the late 90’s; now we are a boutique movie theatre that plays a mix of art-house fare & good second-run Hollywood films.

What makes The Screening Room unique?

A knowledgeable moviegoer once said that we “punch above our weight class” when it comes to the movies we play – in a given week, we usually have 8-10 different titles to choose from, and I can’t help but program a lot of arthouse titles & special events that don’t make money but have meaning for their small audiences. 

In particular, we play a lot of repertory content –  my original dream in running a movie theatre was to bring classic films to the cinema in Kingston. It’s neat that, despite other Covid-recovery challenges, our classic film programming is finally turning a profit as the audience for it has grown. 

What sort of films do you show? (e.g. first-run, rep, arthouse?)

Our top-grossing films of all time are Green Book, Parasite, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Brooklyn & Bohemian Rhapsody… which paints a pretty good picture of what our audience likes to see.

What are The Screening Room’s greatest challenges?

I’d say we’ve got two:

#1: Second-class access to new movies: If the local Cineplex (8km away in the suburbs) or the Landmark (5km away near the 401 Highway) want to play a film, we need to wait until they finish playing it until we can show it downtown.

#2: Our movie theatre is a business.  Before the pandemic hit, we always had enough money to cover our expenses and pay for improvements to the cinema (including a major capacity-doubling renovation in 2018), and our revenue was increasing year-over-year. Now we’re doing everything we can to get to 80% of where we once were, our rent is way up, we’vew got back rent & covid debt to pay, and I’m dreading taking on even more debt to buy new projectors (we have two old ones in decline).

Sometimes I wonder if the cinema itself would be a better-capitalized organization if it were a charitable non-profit, as we’d be able to seek public funding, get tax benefits, and otherwise capitalize on all the goodwill we’ve built up over the years. Our programming is already pretty similar to that of other community-oriented non-profit cinemas.

What are your favourite compliments that The Screening Room receives from your audience?

Our Google Reviews are full of people describing us as a “gem.”

“I am obsessed with The Screening Room” – one young moviegoer

“The seats are comfortable but not too cushy” – reassuring, as we have upright seats (not enough space for recliners)

“A bastion of sanity in this town”

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

Honestly, my most vivid memories are for special events where our technology failed – e.g. ultra-embarrassing playback failure halfway through a sign-along screening of Grease, air conditioning failures for sold-out screenings in the middle of Summer, and so on. 

The best positive memories are when we’ve had special guests in attendance – e.g. the ultra charismatic Diane Beresford-Kroeger for her tree documentary Call of The Forest, film scholar Frank Burke hosting for a series of Italian films.

How did you get your start in film exhibition?

I’ve always loved going to the movies. Before I bought The Screening Room in 2011, I was a librarian at Queen’s University and operated a zero-budget community film screening series (called “Cameo Cinema”) as a side project. I learned the basics of how to operate a movie theatre from the cinema’s previous owner and the part-time projectionist who was the only employee back in the day. 

What are your most popular concession items?

The usual (popcorn, fountain soda, M&Ms & twizzlers), though our trademark item is tea served in a white china mug. We also sell artisanal soda (County Bounty) and *just* got our liquor license two months ago.

What projects are you considering for the future?

I want to replace one of our 10-year-old projectors (a Christie Solaria One…) with a new laser projector, as it’s showing signs of decline…I will attempt a community pledge drive to help raise money for it. I also have a bunch of to-dos when it comes to marketing ourselves better.