1-9 Cinema rescue

Cinema Rescue: A roadmap

March 2012

Whether we prevent the Premier Cinema from being demolished or we find a new indoor big screen venue to watch movies in downtown Smiths Falls, the path is already well-trodden in other small and large communities. We can draw from their experiences, replicate their successes and avoid their mistakes.

Other saved and reborn movie theatres bring together neighbours, celebrate local culture and heritage and attract visitors who part with their cash. Whether ownership is public or private, an independent theatre isn't just a business. Its like a public library that delivers a limited content by appointment and charges a user fee. It can allow a community to subsidize the financially modest with lower ticket prices for children, on Tuesdays, etc. It can also issue a limited number of complimentary tickets to promote attendance. Cash-flow stability can be buoyed with annual memberships.

Although the Premier Cinema always belonged to a privately-owned cinema chain, it has been a multi-role facility for quite some time, offering free or discount price shows to some as prizes or donating a portion of ticket sales to local community fundraising. It became the monthly venue for Film Night International, part of the Toronto International Film Festival's Film Circuit which reaches more than 160 communities. Film Night regularly brought audiences of 200-300 patrons to the Premier to watch first-run European movies with proceeds going to the Perth and Smiths Falls Public Libraries.

Before myopia snatches away another stimulating opportunity for renewal in our community, let's see what other people in other places have done.

By now you probably know about the O'Brien Theatre up north in Renfrew, 70 km west of Kanata. We received a very positive letter of support during our petition drive from its owner who said what he did to revitalize his establishment we could also do with ours. Here is the O'Brien Theatre in 2009.

Their webpage is obrientheatre.com. Check out the interesting films showing there these days. Their programming is typical of independent theatres across Canada. Read the biography of the theatre which opened in 1930. It was run by the chain that also ran the Princess Theatre in Smiths Falls, which is the building on the other side of the parking lot next to our Premier. It was re-purposed into retail and office space. 

Renfrew's O'Brien Theatre was bought by its current owner Murray Adolph in 1993. The website bio says "it remains an important centre of entertainment for the community." The O'Brien has a dozen part-time staff and a night manager, plus digital projectors.

Next, we have the Park Theatre in Cobourg, Ontario, halfway between Kingston and Toronto. This was another Premier chain theatre. It is one of over 500 designated properties that populate Cobourg's four Heritage Conservation Districts. Cobourg has municipal guidelines to preserve the special heritage character of these districts. The guidelines only concern building exteriors. They are only applied when new construction, alterations and additions are proposed by a building owner. There is no onus on a property owner to make improvements simply because of the establishment of a Heritage Conservation District.

Seen here in 2009, above, the Park has been repurposed into a multi-media performing arts centre.

Owner Antonio Sarmiento, who also runs the multimedia company Sarmiento Consulting Inc., says the Park was on the verge of being turned into a furniture warehouse or a parking structure, or even back to a night club. He came into the picture in 2011 and tried desperately to get the town or donors to buy it, but to no avail. It sat closed all of last year as he struggled to get it funded and opened and finally he went to the owner and negotiated a lease. Now he runs it with a single partner who brings in the concerts. Sarmiento says "my background has prepared me, thankfully... so I opened on January 1st and we sold out our first 2 concerts." Three plays are in the works, films are coming in, a concert band and choir are being secured and plans are being made for a big musical next Christmas. "It's a wonderful and challenging road. On a personal note, I've never been happier. Saving the Park Theatre has become my life and will be my legacy."

"Believe that you can do it. See it open and vibrant. Start booking acts, do shows, children's theatre if you must. Show the people what it is, instead of just telling them what it could be. Even at their basic level these theatres are beautiful. Clean it and polish it. My theatre is a grand old dame from a wonderful era. I shined her shoes and pressed her gown, put her in a wonderful show and now people are suddenly noticing the gem that is the Park Theatre."

Check out the Park Theatre's splashy website: parktheatrecobourg.com. 

Over in Picton, southwest of Kingston, there is the Regent Theatre. Opened in 1918, this facility is now the centre for the arts in Prince Edward County, providing the community with a unique venue for live theatre and music. It also shows first run movies and Cinefest, part of the Film Circuit of the Toronto International Film Festival. That's the circuit the Film International series that ran at our Premier got their movies from. The community-based non-profit Regent Theatre Foundation bought the building in 1994. Their website is theregenttheatre.org.

In Saskatoon, there is the Broadway. Friends of the Broadway Theatre, Inc. (1993) is a non-profit, community-based organization with charitable status, dedicated to the preservation and renovation of their historical theatre, and to its promotion as a mid-size venue for film and live performances. Their website is Broadwaytheatre.ca.

In Ottawa, we have the Mayfair Theatre. In 2008 it was designated an official heritage building by the City of Ottawa for its unique architectural and cultural value to the nation’s capital. Built in 1932 in the depths of the Great Depression, the Mayfair is one of Ottawa’s last two neighbourhood cinemas, and one of the oldest surviving independent movie houses in all of Canada. It has the distinction of never having been owned by, or affiliated with, any of the major cinema chains.

More recently the Mayfair organization has opened a second theatre in Orleans, an east-end suburb of Ottawa. In contrast to chain cinemas, the Mayfair Theatre Orleans has three full-sized screens with modern 35mm projection for that classic movie feel, a digital projector for newer, digital-only releases and a 16mm projector for rare films only available in that format. In addition to family fare, the Mayfair Orleans offers first-run independent films and second-run Hollywood movies, as well as Québécois, other Canadian and foreign cinema. Website: mayfairtheatre.ca.

A theatre very similar to our Premier, the Garneau Theatre in Edmonton, also received protection as a Municipal Historic Resource in 2008. Designed by noted Edmonton architect William Blakey and built in 1940, the Garneau is the only remaining theatre of early modernism style and period in Alberta. Recently the Garneau saw a change in operator from Magic Lantern to Metro Cinema Edmonton.

Toronto has the Revue Not-For-Profit Community Cinema, a theatre built in 1912. The Revue's day-to-day operations are funded by ticket revenues and concession sales but as a non-profit organization it is always open to financial assistance. Donations are directed to special programming and equipment upgrades. Website: revuecinema.ca

In Salmon Arm, B.C., there is the Salmar Classic Theatre, run by the non-profit Salmon Arm Community Association since the 1940s. Yes, that's right, since the 1940s. They also built a multiplex. Profits fund…what else…community projects! It has a nine-member volunteer board of directors with a variety of business backgrounds. Website: salmartheatre.com. Here is the Salmar in Salmon Arm.

North of Victoria BC in Sidney there is the Star Cinema, Sidney's independent community movie theatre. They also raised funds for a local hospital extended care unit this winter. Website: starcinema.ca

I could show more examples but I've run out of time.

Local renewal

Big screen movie-going is not a thing of the past. Watching television at home is no more like going to a movie than it is like going to any live event. Like Premier chain owner Brian Allan said, people who own kitchens still go out to restaurants. Its refreshing to get out of the house and share a public event with family and friends. So why did attendance recently ebb at our Premier?

First place goes to the local economy taking a huge hit in 2008 with the closure of several major employers plus the corporate bungling we all call the global financial meltdown. This took entertainment dollars out of thousands of local pockets. A close second place goes to the recent selection of first-run Hollywood movies not drawing big audiences often enough. Third place goes to the cinema chain itself, for ending local advertising and for not keeping the Premier venue itself attractive and fresh enough. A theatre must persuade its customers to attend and in our case the cinema chain stopped doing that. An honourable mention could go to the internet, by adding yet another way for audiences to limit their theatre-going to movies that deserve to be seen on a big screen. 

Conquering all of these factors comes back to theatre marketing again. The perspective of a cinema chain owner is quite different than that of an independent. A chain tries to manage multiple theatres in different locations and at times treats this consumer experience too industrially. If the enthusiasm is absent, fogged by managerial thinking or fails to pass on to the next generation, myopia takes over. Customer loyalty is lost when a business loses its loyalty to the customer. With a chain this effects multiple locations and even more customers. When business consolidation is sought by the owner of multiple assets, the ones that seem hardest to improve get sold off. A theatre in a chain is a branch plant. In Smiths Falls, the branch plant has been a two-edged sword.

Canada has hundreds of independent movie theatres. Many of these are older downtown and small town theatres that were abandoned years ago by cinema chains. The chains moved out to the suburbs and built big box facilities with all of the economic, social and environmental impact that the big box business model brings. The ensuing independent theatres are small businesses run by people who have an enthusiasm for movies and the movie theatre experience. They are often integrated with local film clubs with a similar enthusiasm and other local arts and culture societies that inoculate the public against alienation, the highly virulent byproduct of a top-down, big box economy.

Business models

Independent movie theatres have several business models. One is straight private ownership, with or without partnerships, again by people with an enthusiasm for this neighbourhood-friendly craft. Another is the non-profit charitable foundation. The latter may use lots of unpaid volunteer hours to manage the operation, but still sells tickets and still pays staff to run the operation. Both models can combine annual membership fees with cheaper ticket prices, but they still sell open tickets to the uncommitted. 

Theatres do not exist alone. They affect what is around them as consumer entertainment destinations. Whether near or far, movie patrons must travel and often bundle the experience with dining out. Some of the business gained by restaurants results directly from the presence of a theatre venue. It also puts the eyes of the consumer upon the other businesses in the area. A patron stepping out can see what's on offer and if it excites them they will come back to spend. The presence of a theatre will also tip the scales when a family is choosing a new place to live. Be warned, however, that the opposite is true. 

Take away a theatre, and the retail business of a community will drop. So will employment, property values and tax revenues. When a choice is faced or an opportunity presents itself, a local business community, a local property developer and a local government has a serious stake in what happens. This goes beyond the narrow-minded issue of whether or not a theatre is immediately viable solely from an isolated business model perspective.

Like street lighting and snow removal, a theatre delivers benefits to the surrounding local economy. A theatre with an average attendance of only 50 patrons per day will make over 17,000 money-spending visits per year come to its location. How much advertising revenue would it take for a nearby business to gain that much captive exposure? The importance for retailers to make their establishments as attention-getting and attractive as possible extends to what is around them. They know its not enough to look in the mirror, they must also look out the window.

If a theatre is not maintained and doesn't offer diverse programming, consumers will leave the area, away from its other businesses, for ones that do. Consumers who can't afford the extra cost won't go at all. That is the other side of alienation.

The existence of local film societies doesn't just benefit a small clique of enthusiasts. The movie selections they bring to local theatre venues have a direct impact on the community as a whole because everyone can sample what is on offer, which is more than the usual new Hollywood fare, whether acclaimed foreign films (plenty in your own language) or repertory movies. A theatre that provides and promotes both kinds of product draws from both kinds of crowds, mixing them together to make one plus one equal three.

Movies in the Park

I choose to mention Movies in the Park here because it is a splendid example of a non-profit community endeavour that will benefit the local theatre venue that can take advantage of the opportunity it provides. Equipped with a big inflated screen and a DVD-based projector, Movies in the Park was established by the Smiths Falls Together community association in 2010 to show repertory, family-friendly movies outdoors right downtown at Centennial Park for free. Drawing regular summer audiences of 100 and more, this project receives local corporate sponsorship augmented by some concession stand food sales. Here, money is no object: anyone and their families can attend, as long as the climate co-operates. Organizers have added kid-friendly pre-show activities to augment the experience, like body-moving games, skill-testing contests with awards and chalk art on the blocked-off roadway circling the park.

Watching a movie on a big screen at a public venue with neighbours and friends reinforces the community bonds that keep people cooperative, caring and crime-proof. Attending public events like this prevents the alienation that undermines these community values. Also, this entertainment experience is much more stimulating than what can be had at home and it puts spectacular ideas into young and old minds alike.

Movies in the Park only runs during the warm season when it doesn't rain. The movies it shows fall in a narrow range: previously-run, no higher than PG-rated. I would not have chosen to see Mars Needs Moms at home or at a cinema and yet here I found myself enjoying the design, animation and comedy, along with the company of friends and aquaintences. In here there are opportunities for niche variety, like the two campy Elvis Presley musicals Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas shown last year. These 1960s examples are films today's audiences haven't seen on a big screen, if they've ever seen them at all. Exposure to them directly creates cultural and economic spin-offs which benefit the entire community. First, it creates a desire to see more films on even-bigger indoor screens among the uninitiated. Second, it reminds the initiated-but-rusty to partake again in this consumer outing option. Having a nearby theatre on hand makes this selection take place here instead of exporting local money to Kanata or Brockville.


Presently, high cost estimates to renovate and renew our Premier Cinema have been put forth by proponents of demolishing it. You might assume these estimates are exaggerated to imply the goal is out of reach. If they were honestly made, they also imply this is the best that these proponents and the construction companies they consulted can offer. They don't, for instance, include the donation of time and expertise by skilled local professionals. If the Premier is demolished, it will be demolished for a profit. The fact is, an impartial study has not been done. 

An impartial investigation will reveal what minimum legal renovations really need to be done to open the doors again. If and once they do, the theatre can generate a cash flow and begin to market itself anew as Our Local Cinema. In that process, what ailed the Premier in the past can be healed. It can have the makeover it needed. This makeover isn't just physical, its mental: this is a new opportunity for local staff to take pride in their work. It also creates a new local barter currency: movie tickets. An occupied standing building with cash flow will pry open access to more resources to improve on what used to be available. For example, digital projectors are expensive to buy but they can be leased. What's more, adding satellite and internet access to the establishment makes two new things possible. One, digital-based programming can be shown without the cost of procuring digital movie hard drives. Two, any event broadcast from anywhere on our entire planet can be shown live, whether this is a concert, a Smiths Falls Bears away game, an unfolding international crisis or even equestrian show-jumping at the Olympics.

Its important to remember how large a venue the Premier Cinema is. It has two theatres, one with over 200 seats and the other over 300 seats. Right now, the only comparable local venue of this size is our new multi-million dollar, debt-financed arena. Other venues in Smiths Falls include the 70-seat auditorium of the Rideau Canal Museum and the 100-seat Station Theatre. When the Premier was faced with closure, Film Nights International moved from the Premier to the Canal Museum auditorium, reducing audience capacity (and fund-raising capacity) to as few as 60 seats due to the technical requirements of the movies being shown. What's missing now includes some of the audience that used to travel from Perth and elsewhere, patrons who now don't dine in our restaurants or pubs. Since Film Night's membership is full, everyone else who wants to see a movie in Smiths Falls is shut out.

Similarly, the larger Station Theatre also has limitations. Technical considerations aside, this venue is only available between their live performance and rehearsal schedules, which is the very reason it was built in the first place.


The Premier Cinema would still be worth every penny even if it really did need $1.3 million to open again, if it is financed and managed by people who know what they are doing. The word "finance" is important here because nobody has to come up with the total amount all at once before the doors open again or even before expanding the programming and purpose it had. It really comes down to people who know what they're doing. As with the long-empty and nearly derelict Rideau Hotel, a building more in plain sight to everyone who drives down Beckwith Street than the recently-frequented Premier, the traditional process of property sale doesn't cut it around here anymore.  

A white night isn't going to swoop in and save the day. It can't be done alone and too much is at stake. Considering how recent developments have unfolded, they wouldn't be able to tell who to buy it from. A process with public oversight is needed because the ramifications have such a large public and economic impact. Whether reviving the Premier uses a private or a public business model, it will have to avail itself of a multi-party board of directors, oversight management with due diligence criteria, a public-private partnership, loan guarantees, federal and provincial cost-sharing (like the road you drive on), and cultural grants from foundations that support this kind of renewal and even cost subsides from energy suppliers to retrofit the building to reduce its heating and cooling bills.

On this page the way has been shown and it isn't a minefield. I have bicycles to fix, bills to pay and other volunteer responsibilities to stop neglecting. I might barter cleaning the bathrooms for movie tickets and even attend meetings if I get asked, but right now I'm getting out of the way.

Remember to vote in the next municipal election.