Independent cinemas in Canada are in crisis

Independent cinemas in Canada are in crisis

At the Network of Independent Canadian Exhibitors (NICE), we had anticipated this would be a challenging time for cinemas: After COVID-era relief and before audiences have fully returned.

But what we weren’t expecting was the conflagration of:

  • The cost of living crisis
  • The reduction in the number of films available to screen, including repertory titles
  • Strikes in Hollywood disrupting titles in release
  • Increasingly restrictive demands from studios in order to show their movies
  • The biggest double-bill blockbuster in years Barbenheimer being blocked from many independent cinemas due to unfair zone restrictions

This is all taking place at the same time that CEBA loan repayment is due in order to retain the grant component. Other compounding stressors include the fact that the equipment of many independent cinemas, purchased during the transition to digital projection, is beginning to fail. Many cinemas also operate heritage buildings which require constant upkeep.

Who are the independent cinemas in Canada?

Canada is a fairly unique market, with significant monopoly concerns. When we talk about independent cinemas, we are talking about all cinemas except for Cineplex and, to a much lesser extent, Landmark. Learn more.

What that means for this conversation is that the concerns of independent cinemas are the concerns of all theatrical exhibition outside of one major player, and one mid-sized player. Independents are not niche: They are the primary alternative venue to see a movie—and often at a more affordable price.

Independent cinemas, in English-speaking Canada especially, are a fragile ecosystem: Each venue must individually come up with inventive ways to survive, and is vulnerable to changes in the market. These venues are key cultural and economic players in their communities. They are also the best bet on building audiences for Canadian film.

Independent cinemas are difficult to re-open; we very rarely hear of venues being brought back to life. In Halifax, Canada’s 13th most populous city and an important provincial capital, there has been no independent brick-and-mortar cinema for years.

Cinemas in crisis

Last week, we put out a call to our membership asking: “Are you also especially feeling the pinch right now? Do you feel close to making tough decisions about the future of your venue?”

We quickly received 25 responses from venues across the country:

  • 48% of respondents are located in communities with a population under 30,000
  • 20% are in rural areas: communities with a population of less than 1,000 or with a population density less than 400 persons per square kilometre
  • 60% are the only cinema in their community
  • 60% are historic venues

Over and over, we heard from cinemas who are in a tough position. They just need a bit more time to build back their audiences and pay back their loans.

There is a need for emergency support in order to preserve many of the diverse and beloved cinemas across Canada.

One $5,000 fund for cinemas

Telefilm is the national organization whose remit is to support the development, production, promotion and distribution of the screen-based industry in Canada.

There is currently only one funding opportunity for exhibitors through Telefilm: the Theatrical Exhibition Program which is meant to support programming Canadian films in cinemas. This year’s fund supports cinemas with a maximum of $5,000 per cinema or a maximum of $10,000 per corporate group.

For cinemas showing films year-round, $5,000 is not a number that moves the needle on how they conduct their business.

Telefilm has many activities which depend on exhibition, but they do not directly support exhibitors. NICE supports the expansion of funds covering marketing, festival programs and industry initiatives to ensure independent cinemas remain part of the delicate and important Canadian film ecosystem.

In the previous two years, Telefilm has shown commitment to exhibitors through enhanced funding buoyed by the Canadian Arts and Culture Recovery Program (CACRP) and the Recovery Fund for Arts, Culture, Heritage and Sport Sectors. We support Telefilm’s requests for additional funding to maintain exhibitors and the entire film value chain.

“[In the past two years,] the grant allowed us to survive the bad films, the strong terms and dictatorship of this arena. When we take a bath on a movie, the grant allowed us to keep paying staff, the bills and the minimum they demand. It allowed us to take a chance on another film. If we do not see a bump in grant monies, even as a for-profit, more will close. May not happen in 2023, but it will. If an investor offers any one of us that own the building a respectable offer for the building, why would they say no? What gain is there?”

Shaun Aquiline, Gem Theatre, Grand Forks, BC
Looking to Québec

We don’t have to look far to find a robust model supporting exhibition of Canadian films: SODEC in Quebec supports exhibitors to a higher dollar amount. Québec-based NICE members have received between $25,000 and $60,000 annually.

It is no secret that Québec’s domestic box office far outstrips the rest of Canada’s. We are certain that programs like SODEC’s do a good amount to support this fact.

What is the value of a cinema in your community?

If Canadians see the value of a local independent cinema, then there must be a shift in how we talk about how we support their longevity.

Independent cinemas hold value, no matter what  films they are showing. Spread across the country in communities large and small, these cinemas have incredible reach and impact.

We ask the Department of Canadian Heritage and other government bodies to recognize cinemas as important cultural hubs, which warrant the same support as symphony halls and opera houses.

What independent cinemas need

Today, there is a need for emergency relief for cinemas who are particularly feeling the crunch.

On an ongoing basis, there is need for annual support that:

  1. Creates real incentives for showing Canadian film that are strong enough to influence business decisions
  2. Reflects the cultural value, economic impact and health benefits of cinemas for their communities

NICE is committed to working together with all levels of government and all industry partners in order to foster a thriving and diverse film exhibition landscape across the country.