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Screening Room playing movies to empty theatres as pandemic drags on

Photo by Tommy Vallier

The Screening Room’s owner Wendy Huot says attendance at the theatre during the COVID-19 pandemic is down 75 to 80 per cent. That’s since it reopened on Friday, Jul. 31, 2020 following a mandatory 4.5-month shutdown.

“We’re not the type of business that can readily pivot to online or a take-out business model,” she said. “Many of our screenings have zero, one or two moveigoers.”

Huot said The Screening Room is now losing several thousand dollars a month. “I don’t see us earning anything close to profit until people feel safe sitting next to strangers again,” she said. 

Now, Kingston city councillors Jim Neill and Rob Hutchison are bringing the issue to council, on behalf of constituents that they said fear losing The Screening Room entirely.

Neill said many members of the community are lobbying him to help save the independent cinema, the only remaining movie theatre in Kingston’s downtown core. He will table a motion at Kingston’s City Council meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, asking the federal and Ontario provincial governments to improve the assistance available to theatres. 

Huot said it was very heartening to hear from Neill that people are actively lobbying on her behalf.

Even with federal programs, shortfalls persist

Huot said she has taken advantage of the federal wage subsidy program, the Canadian Emergency Business Account and Telefil emergency fund, and described them as “a huge help.” 

Covering rent payments has still been a challenge, she noted. She’s relieved that the federal government has announced an overhaul of its commercial rent relief program, which will soon allow tenants to apply for relief directly. 

The Screening Room was declined by the $1000 emergency assistance program from Utilities Kingston, she said. The program is designed to assist those who were already behind on their bills when the pandemic hit, and The Screening Room was not. 

“My approach has been to lend my personal savings to The Screening Room to help cover the bills, rather than let The Screening Room leave any bills unpaid,” Huot said. “It’s frustrating to see that I would have received an extra $1000 if I let the theatre’s utilities go unpaid instead.”

The cinema also has $130,000 debt still owing for their major renovation in 2018, she said, which, among other things, made it wheelchair accessible. “We received zero dollars in public funding for our renovation project, even though you could consider a cinema like ours an important piece of civic cultural infrastructure,” she said.

‘The entire culture of moviegoing’ at risk 

The Screening Room’s marquee, in pre-COVID times. Photo by Phillip Stafford

Huot said her biggest concern is that the COVID-19 pandemic will permanently damage the entire culture of moviegoing. That could mean fewer movies made for theatrical release, fewer people in the moviegoing habit, and ultimately that her theatre won’t be viable as a for-profit business. 

“North American film distributors are holding back promising titles until moviegoing becomes a mainstream activity again. Many films are going straight to streaming or video-on-demand home services, and bypassing theatrical release all together,” she said. “There are fewer high-quality, high-interest or potential ‘hit’ films to play.” 

Huot said she expects the mainstream cinema industry to downsize and consolidate as a result of the pandemic.

“Though some days I imagine that the cinema business will return, mostly, to normal when this all blows over; who knows when that will happen,” she said.

Huot said the public perception that going to the movies is risky may not be accurate. “Emerging data suggests that moviegoing can be a ‘relatively safe’ indoor public activity [during COVID-19], compared to church, restaurants, gyms, etc,” she said. 

“Globally, there’s not a single publicly-recorded case of COVID-19 transmission taking place in a cinema. Moviegoers do not face each other or talk to each other, and there’s plenty of mechanisms for crowd control such as staggering showtimes or reserve seating.” Cinemas never shut down entirely in Japan or South Korea, she added.

While Huot said she believes moviegoing will be “a thing” for a very long time to come, she suggested that cinema may go the way of live theatre and opera, and need to be funded by something other than ticket and concession sales. 

“In many cities including Edmonton, Winnipeg and Victoria, their cinema equivalents to The Screening Room are not-for-profit or charitable organizations that receive government funding,” she said.

Help from the City

Huot wants to explore whether The Screening Room might be eligible for special status under the cultural services umbrella. 

“Many arts organizations use our space for film screenings,” she said. “We are more affordable than renting the Baby Grand or the 90 seat screening room at the Isabel, plus we serve popcorn,” she said. Teachers bring their students to the Screening Room on field trips to watch documentaries, she noted, or to screen films made by the students themselves. 

“Maybe such a status would be symbolic for the time being, but I do wonder about laying out a tiny bit of speculative groundwork for crossing over to the public or non-profit sector, should it ever come to that for The Screening Room,” she said.

Hutchison’s motion at Tuesday’s upcoming City Council meeting includes requests that:

  • The federal government revamp the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program so that movie theatres can access more funds
  • The federal government rework the financial assistance program for theatres that flows through Heritage Canada, so that more theatres are eligible, and funds can go to theatres that are in “dire need”
  • The provincial government extend eviction rules for another six months 

The motion, if passed, will be sent to Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, Provincial Finance Minister Rod Phillips, Federal Leader of the Opposition Erin O’Toole, Provincial Leader of the Opposition Andrea Howarth, MP Mark Gerretsen, MPP Ian Arthur and MPP Randy Hillier.

UPDATE : Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. Utilities Kingston has provided the following statement regarding the CEAP Small Business Program:

· CEAP-SB is an Ontario Energy Board (OEB) program, delivered by local electricity utilities across Ontario, including Utilities Kingston.

· We feel for our customers who are experiencing hardships due to the pandemic. While we would like to get these funds into the hands of our customers who need them most, we are bound by the eligibility requirements set by the OEB. Our team has provided feedback to the OEB regarding eligibility requirements, to advocate on behalf of customers.

· This program is for small businesses and charitable organizations referred to as the General Service under 50 kW rate class (GS<50 kW), with a typical monthly usage of 2,500 kWh. Examples of consumers in GS<50 kW rate class could be coffee shops, restaurants and retail stores. Customers in the General Service greater than 50 kW rate class do not qualify for the program, according to OEB eligibility requirements.

· Under the program, small business and registered charity customers may be eligible for up to $850 in support towards their electricity bill if they primarily use electricity for heating, or up to $425 otherwise. Small business and registered charity customers could also be eligible for up to $425 in support towards their natural gas bill.

· Customers are reminded: If you are concerned about paying your bill, please contact us to extend payment arrangements. Contact our credit department using our online payment assistance form. A member of our team will review your request and respond by email or phone call, as quickly as possible. Alternatively, you can call us at 613-546-1181, ext. 2278, Monday to Friday from 8 AM to 4:30 PM.

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Samantha Butler-Hassan

Samantha Butler-Hassan is a staff writer and life-long Kingston resident. She is a news junkie and mom who loves reading and exploring the community. This article has been made possible with the support of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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