The pandemic takes a big bite out in Quebec cinemas

Bruce Gurberg smiles as he talks about the taste of movie theater popcorn and listing the movies showing at his Côte-des-Neiges theater, despite the fact that last year his business was crippled by the pandemic.

“There is no doubt that our numbers have gone down and it has not been pleasant,” said Gurberg, owner and president of the Cine Starz movie chain.

“Being closed, with curfews, no food sales, was absolutely difficult.”

The latest figures published by the Quebec Institute of Statistics theaters in the province saw 14 million fewer visitors in 2020 than in 2019 – a 77% drop, largely due to COVID-19 restrictions.

In March 2020, Quebec entered lockdown and cinemas were closed. They reopened with reduced capacity three months later, as summer looked bright. But in October, as Quebec was hit by another wave of infections, they were closed again as Premier François Legault imposed curfews and strict rules.

During the March break of this year, theaters slowly welcomed moviegoers in their stead, but not without controversy.

Vincenzo Guzzo, president of Guzzo Cinemas, said most cinemas wouldn’t want to reopen without being able to sell popcorn and snacks, which make up half of their income. Premier Legault called it “the door to popcorn” and the Quebec government agreed to compensate movie theater owners for lost revenue from concession stands.

“Lots of protocols” for customer safety

In recent months, Gurberg says customers still seem reluctant to return to its five branches in Quebec and Ontario.

“There has been a huge drop,” he said. “We notice that the people who come love it, appreciate it. But there is still a lot of fear and a lot of people are not ready to give it a shot yet.”

With all of Quebec currently in the green zone, cinemas can accommodate up to 500 people per section with a maximum capacity of 7,500. Reservations are required, people living at different addresses must sit in a separate seat. and face masks should be worn unless you are silent and seated. Customers can snack on popcorn but cannot speak.

Movies are one of the non-essential activities for which a vaccination passport is required to enter.

Theaters should also have separate entrances, exits, food counters and sanitary facilities for each area and staff should monitor access.

“We have a lot of protocols here for your safety,” said Gurberg, “and we follow all the rules and take care of everyone.”

Streaming in a house near you

Gabriel Pelletier, president of the Association of Directors of Quebec, an association of Quebec film producers, says COVID-19 has accelerated a global change in the way films are created and consumed.

While theaters were closed, he says more and more Hollywood productions have debuted in people’s living rooms.

“There is a window where the movies are supposed to only be on the big screen,” Pelletier said. “This window is getting smaller and smaller.”

Gabriel Pelletier is president of an association of Quebec film producers. (Kwabena Oduro / CBC)

Pelletier says streaming services mostly have an appetite for English content, but he thinks it will only be a few years before he starts targeting French films from Quebec.

He says small local productions are already going straight to independent theaters and streaming services, which are ready to fund films and help keep costs down.

“The theatrical release is just another screen in the whole scheme of things,” he said.

“There’s home watching, you can watch it on your phone, on your tablet … Different kinds of movies are going to find different kinds of releases.”

Community arts

Arshad Khan, Montreal filmmaker and member of the organizing committee of the Coalition of South Asian Film Festivals, says he will never stop making films designed for theaters.

Arshad Khan is a Montreal filmmaker and member of the organizing committee of the Coalition of South Asian Film Festivals. (Submitted by Arshad Khan)

As a Parkistani-Canadian artist, Khan says he lives for the “rich conversations” that occur after his film screenings, when people from different backgrounds and backgrounds come together to discuss a shared experience.

“There is no way these conversations could have happened if they were watching my work on a streaming platform,” he said.

“Cinema gives the opportunity to develop community, to build community, to discuss and examine art,” he said. “The four walls of cinema and sound design and all … that suits you.”

Khan says there are many other filmmakers, producers and movie owners who are passionate about the traditional large format and will fight to maintain the central role of theaters in the business. And he says he would like the government to look at how it can provide additional support to Canadian industry.

“When you want your audience to have that experience or that intensity, you can’t do it when they’re sitting on their laptop or at home or on their phone, it can only happen in a movie theater,” a- he declared.

“I think the government should do its best at all levels (…) to ensure that this important cultural institution is supported and does not die out,” he said.

“We need to protect our arts and culture.

Quebec cinemas are trying to return after being closed twice by strict public health rules. (Kwabena Oduro / CBC)

Pushing forward

Despite the challenges he’s faced over the past year and a half, Gurberg says he’s willing to bet people will still want to go to the movies.

He will be opening a new theater on Cavendish Boulevard in a few months and is convinced that attendance will eventually return to normal.

“There is nothing like a movie and a popcorn in a movie theater,” he said. “It has been difficult, but things are improving in the future.”

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