© 2016 M.L. Bream

With cinemas shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic, there is light at the end of the projection tunnel

April 29, 2020

 

Like many people during these locked-down days, I’ve been having anxiety dreams — more like nightmares — that interrupt my sleep.


They come as random reminders of my previous life outside the walls of my home, where I’m fortunate to have only boredom to contend with, for now at least.


I wake up in the wee hours fretful about having missed a movie screening, interview, deadline or some other journalistic concern.


One night recently, I dreamed of being inside a crowded movie theatre — an anxious situation all its own — and staring at a blank screen.


I didn’t know what movie I was supposed to be seeing, or even if there would be a movie. It’s normally a time of happy anticipation as I await a screening. Not this time. The dream ended without resolution, as so many do, leaving me literally in the dark.


This mirrors the uncertainty of the movie industry, where theatres around the world are currently shuttered due to the physical distancing requirements of fighting the coronavirus pandemic.


Attempts to reopen theatres too quickly, as China did last month, court disaster: fearful moviegoers stayed away in droves, forcing the theatres to close again, this time for economic reasons as well as viral ones.


The pandemic presents a mortal threat to an industry based on people gathering together to enjoy a communal viewing experience.


Movie-going was already facing the audience-grabbing challenge posed by Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon and other in-home streaming services, spurring talk that the age of beautiful movie palaces and accommodating multiplexes is rapidly coming to a close.


Streaming services have experienced exponential growth in recent weeks as we hunker down in our abodes watching digital film and TV offerings.


Yet I find myself hoping that pent-up audience demand for public movie places is building, and that cinemas will emerge from this real-life nightmare with a new lease on life and great new ideas for future growth.


It’s certainly convenient to be able to watch all manner of comedies and dramas on a home TV screen or computer monitor. But it just can’t replace the simple pleasure of being inside a movie theatre, in the company of hundreds of other moviegoers, as we let a film carry us all away.


I went into lockdown with great intentions for personal edification. I was going to really get into my Blu-ray collection, such as that boxed set of Satyajit Ray’s lauded “The Apu Trilogy” I’ve been meaning to check out.


Instead of edification, though, I’ve gone in for cinematic comfort food, watching old favourites I’ve seen many times. Most have been comedies. I watched “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Big Lebowski” and more.


I enjoyed each viewing. But I would have loved these movies more on a bigger screen, especially the outdoor chase scenes of “Butch Cassidy.”


I mentioned this to my friend Karen Gordon, the movie critic for CBC Radio’s “Metro Morning.”


She agreed with me, adding, “I also like the ritual of going to the movies. Getting your tickets, finding your seat, being in that big room with other people, that’s part of the experience that I love, too. I’ve been to movie theatres in every city I’ve visited and the experiences there are as memorable as the movies I saw.”


But how long can movie theatres survive without their audiences? Desire alone does not pay the bills for exhibitors.


So I asked some of them and I’m relieved to learn that, despite the huge threat posed by the pandemic, theatres are not contemplating darkening their marquees forever. Public screenings are not likely to resume until late June or early July, and they would entail strict maintenance of social distancing rules.


In the meantime, theatre operators are doing what they can to maintain a semblance of normalcy.


The Toronto International Film Festival has partnered with Bell Media’s Crave service to create “Stay-at-Home Cinema,” hosted by Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director and co-head. Screenings of acclaimed films — including “ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch” (April 22), “The Hate U Give” (April 24) and “Bad Education” (April 25) — are accompanied by filmmaker and talent Q&A sessions on Instagram Live, moderated by Bailey, just as if the films were screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox, the festival headquarters that is shuttered until at least July 1.


“We’re taking our cues from government” as to when exactly TIFF will resume showings on the five public screens at the Lightbox, said Joana Vicente, TIFF’s executive director and co-head.


“What’s key now is to stay connected, support each other and be as innovative, nimble and resourceful as we can,” she added. “Adversity can bring to light great ideas and we all need to be part of helping the film industry recover.”


TIFF still plans to proceed with the 2020 version of its annual cinema celebration, scheduled for Sept. 10 to 20. It will likely be a combination of in-person and virtual screenings, and may serve as a platform for other festivals, Cannes among them.


Vicente said TIFF is thinking outside the Lightbox for some of those screenings, including possibly using the Docks Drive-in on Cherry St. near Lake Shore Blvd., which has a 500-person capacity. (The Docks no longer operates as a full-time drive-in, but it’s available for private rentals.)


Theatre giant Cineplex is also proceeding virtually, selling and renting films via its website.

 

And it’s partnering on Lionsgate Live! A Night at the Movies, an initiative operating via the Mongrel Media page on YouTube to stream a free series of popular films. They include “Dirty Dancing” (April 24),” “La La Land” (May 1) and “John Wick” (May 8). These 9 p.m. screenings will collect viewer donations in aid of Canadian Picture Pioneers, a charity supporting members of the motion picture industry. The money will go to local theatre employees affected by the coronavirus crisis.


The single-screen Fox Theatre in the Beach is also in survival mode, offering virtual screenings through its website while encouraging people to purchase memberships and gift cards to keep the 106-year-old venue afloat.


The Fox’s most clever brainwave has also proven to be its most successful: selling naming rights to the theatre’s 250 seats at $150 apiece, with individual plaques acknowledging the benefactors.


It’s been a big hit, said Fox co-owner Daniel Demois, indicating how much people love and want to support their local movie house. The naming rights idea was in response to public demand.


“Many people had asked how they can help support us,” he said. “This idea had been effective at some other theatres. We sold all 250 of our seats — 100 per cent!”


It’s great to see such public support for movie theatres in these stay-at-home times. There may be light at the end of the projection tunnel, after all.


(This column originally ran in the Toronto Star on April 22, 2020.)


 

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