1-7 Cinema rescue

Jan. 25, 2012

Notes from meeting on saving cinema
Held Sat. Jan 14 2012 at Manhattan's Bar & Grill
Russell Street, Smiths Falls

Written by David Hoffman
E-mail: davidhoffman@magma.ca
Phone: 613 283 7635.

I attended the meeting but wrote these notes today from memory. If others were there and find I am mistaken, please tell me now.

As many as 50 people gathered at Manhattan's Bar & Grill on Russell Street in Smiths Falls on Saturday January 14, 2012, to discuss the prospect of saving the town's only remaining movie theatre, the two-screen Premier Cinema on Main Street. The building went up for sale only months ago and found prospective buyers not long after, who announced they intended to demolish the building and replace it with a parking lot.

Protests and proposals have been expressed about keeping the cinema open and modifying it into a multi-use centre that still shows movies. There has been local and regional media coverage about this but the latest report was that one way to prevent its destruction by designating it a heritage building was rejected by vote of town council. The town's heritage committee was not consulted.

The meeting was called by Louis Tremblay, co-owner of Compositions Gallery, Cinema manager Jan Stepniak, and others. It was a diverse, overlapping crowd of long-time residents, newcomers, those who have come back, parents, kids, grand parents, movie buffs, property owners and renters. One participants was a very young boy who, with his dad's help, made a list of recommendations that Louis has posted on-line on our local Facebook websites. 

It was hoped that Rivington or Miller, the prospective buyers, would also be there but they were said to be in Florida. A colleague attended the meeting on their behalf.

Attendance included four directors of the new Smiths Falls Arts Council (myself and Louis included), another resident who is a member of the town's Heritage Committee, and reporters for Lake 88 Radio and Smiths Falls EMC. 

No town staff or counsellors attended the meeting. I can't say any of them were specifically invited but many would have known the meeting was going to take place, since it was posted a week beforehand on Facebook pages that most of them belong to. If counsellors and staff were not specifically invited to attend, it belies the fact that this is a new, not yet organized group meeting for the first time. Word that the cinema was to be sold and torn down was very fresh news eclipsed by the chaos of Christmas holidays. 

The question was raised, are we trying to save the building or are we trying to keep big screen movie-watching in town? It was suggested that the cinema is mainly a plain cinderblock building with merely a noteworthy front end. Many or most refused to choose between them and insisted "both!". One fellow said he found there are only two other buildings in the area with the essential 20-foot ceilings, being the Hershey Plant and another empty factory near there. It was suggested there may be a building that could have its ceiling raised, yet no other location wins remotely so hands-down as the cinema itself. It was acknowledged at the meeting that the building has some historical significance and style and would be eligible for Heritage status.

Jan gave some details about the state of the building itself. There are or have been issues in areas like fire, safety and health but these have either been dealt with or are not consequential. Repairs and renovations to the building itself are considered to be the substantial cost involved. There was some disagreement about these costs. A representative for the prospective buyer said heating, lighting and operating the building costs more than $20,000. Maybe I didn't hear that right. Maybe someone else could verify or deny that was said. The cost of replacing some doors was also described as over $10,000 but there was scepticism about all of these numbers. This is the problem with determining how realistic it is in the first place to try and save the building. Perhaps the theatre chain wasn't diligent with renovations over the past decade but the only numbers being offered or available about what costs could be expected are coming from those who want to see the building sold and those who want to buy it and tear it down.

The other problem with saving the building is the apparent economic scenario in which it can operate as a cinema. Ticket sales are said to have fallen in recent years. But even this isn't solid data. For one thing, the theatre chain stopped advertising showings in local media about a year and a half ago. Second, there is the looming end of film and the beginning of digital projection which also threatens to cost tens of thousands of dollars. Ultimately, for movies to continue to be shown here, ticket sales will have to be adequate and new uses need to be added.

The idea that the cinema remain entirely what it is, a first-run movie chain cinema, likely won't generate enough revenue in the current movie chain model which has been big-boxified like the rise of big box stores across the continent and all over the world. Its not surprising that other options like opening and running an independent cinema won't be on their radar. But independent cinemas were opened anyway, usually in theatres that the chains abandoned, and they're not dying off.

I made a point then and I'll make it here. Nobody believes that the buyers really want to replace the cinema with a parking lot. That might cap the land neatly until some later use or sale but the purchase and demolition price tag would make for a pretty expensive parking spot. If development at a later date is seen as a realistic investment now, it begs the question, what would be so attractive to justify demolishing one of the key delightful features of moving here? If anything, renovating the building and continuing its use even if it operated at a loss would be more than compensated for by the increase in value of the existing surrounding properties, let alone new ones such as the possibility of redeveloping the old water treatment plant nearby.

Several times additional uses were mentioned at the meeting and often these, like watching movies, were connected to giving local kids a safe place to go and something to do rather than, say, have nothing to do and be exposed to drugs and alcohol. Yes, that's right, closing the Premiere Cinema is a youth-at-risk issue. Its also a fact that if the Premiere closes, our residents young and old alike will no longer be able to go on a date at the movies. This has not been the case in Smiths Falls ever since your grandparents were children. The last cinema to close, here, was contained in the wedge-shaped building on Chambers at Beckwith.

One fellow suggested an additional use would be a video game centre. He noted there hasn't been a video arcade in town for years. I've been told there was one at 22 Market Street during the 1980s by at least two people who used it.  Another, related use would be for regional and international video game tournaments, which is a multi-billion dollar industry in South Korea. Does Smiths Falls have local gamers that could guide organizing an event like that? Events like this could also be connected live to similar events happening simultaneously (which happen already) around the world. Links could be projected onto the big screen using several smaller digital projectors like that already used by Movies Under the Stars beneath our water tower.

Continued use of the cinema may depend on acquiring digital projection but not right away. First run film will still be available for a couple of years. Also, digital is not completely reliable. Some early adopters are having to replace their equipment already. The cost is expected to drop to more manageable amounts over the next few years. Additionally, in the meantime, digital projectors can be leased instead of bought. Once it is acquired, further multi-use opportunities present themselves, like live broadcasts of events including, dare I say it, the away games of home teams. These represent further types of ticket sales.

Decades ago, television destroyed attendance of many local cultural activities. It certainly was a compelling, newly-affordable medium. But people are obviously not shut-ins when they have equally-compelling places to go. Preserving the Premiere Cinema and making it our own provides the opportunity for all of us to invent our own new fun together here at home, and spend some of our cash to do it.

Here's a scenario. It isn't the only one possible and it might not even be the best approach but its a benchmark to think about.

Let's say town council decides to re-examine the question of designating the Premiere as a heritage building and the current buyers--who are in fact demolishers--drop out. And then lets say a non-profit corporation is formed, owned by you and me, to buy the building. A charitable non-profit is eligible for tax-free donations, which becomes an avenue for those fortunate among us to show their love, for channeling provincial and federal grants where these apply, like the installation of a "green roof" for instance, or the grants which still flow from cultural endowment funds. Even if in a worst case scenario this becomes a $500,000 project, I would like to point out that Ottawa recently installed some new skating kiosks on the Rideau Canal for Winterlude. Each one of these stylish pods, no bigger than a living room, tiny compared to an entire theatre , cost $700,000. 

A non-profit building can certainly host a for-profit cinema, if that is the required, most effective organizational model to keep showing movies. Renting the facilities would simply be part of the cinema's overhead, along with the usual tasks of cleaning and providing refreshments. A non-profit building can have a board of directors that provide public oversight of essential standards. If the cinema isn't owned by a chain, it can still obtain first run movies through a broker. It will have the freedom to show other movies as well, to be determined by actually asking the customer base what movies they would really like to see on a big screen in the company of their friends and neighbours. Full attendance is not only possible but precedented. Until uncertainty about the cinema made them make other plans, the International Film night drew audiences of 300. 

This is clearly an example of a clash between property developers and the community at large. Developers have their own goals and agendas and sometimes these result in a wrecking ball to your heart before you knew it was at risk. As usual, things are taken out of your hands when you sit back passively. Its easy to forget the price of freedom is eternal vigilance when they are telling you that isn't profitable enough.

A second meeting is planned for this coming Saturday, probably same time and place. Will it be a planning meeting or will it be a funeral for the Premiere Cinema?