An end in sight: How independent Montreal cinemas are coping with COVID-19

Quebec authorities have allowed concert venues, theatres, and cinemas to open as of June 22 as part of the province’s deconfinement plan. The government’s lack of forewarning from, however, left some independent venues unprepared and unable to open on June 22 without sufficient safety measures—such as shields and precise measurements for seating—ready and in place. The McGill Tribune interviewed Mario Fortin, general director of Cinéma du Parc, and Aude Renaud-Lorrain, interim director of Cinéma Moderne, about the impacts of quarantine on the Montreal independent cinema scene as well as their hopes and fears as the city begins to reopen. 

“This has never happened before,” Fortin said. “We’re trying to be prepared for the evolution of [social distancing] measures. They’re changing every day, but if we have to go back and put some tougher measures in, we’ll be ready for that.” 

Cinéma du Parc, which reopened on July 3, is a favourite amongst students for its affordable ticket prices and support for McGill’s student-run FOKUS Film Festival. Fortin, however, remained concerned about how to best accommodate his older clientele, who make up the bulk of his regular cinemagoers. 

“We wanted to open on [June 22], but we didn’t know how,” Fortin said. “The announcement was hectic. They said we could reopen on [June 22] but we didn’t have the set-up regulations yet.”

Cinéma Moderne, located in Mile End, reopened on July 2. The cozy independent cinema features a bar outside the screens, and is a social hub for meetings and mingling as well as an entertainment venue. 

“It’s difficult to describe what reopening is going to look like,” Renaud-Lorrain said. “We want to make sure people actually feel comfortable to come, and to keep to the restrictions and accommodations for health and safety. It will be Cinéma Moderne but with a mask on.” 

Both cinemas have continued to connect with their community by offering affordable options  via their Online Cinema, an initiative developed in response to COVID-19 which allows customers to rent a variety of films. Fortin described the successes and weaknesses of the Online Cinema venture, highlighting the support that the initiative generated.

“We were looking for solutions to keep in contact with our customers,” Fortin said. “This started with a couple of distributors that understand the importance and the value of a theatre. We became the matchmaker between the customers and the distributors. Every time a customer watches a film from our website, the distributors share the revenue with us.” 

While the online cinemas engaged cinemagoers who were actively looking to help local venues, Fortin emphasizes that selling virtual tickets is ultimately unsustainable, and did not significantly contribute to financial turnover during the lockdown.

“This is definitely not something that will replace selling tickets at the cinema,” Fortin said. “It’s the same everywhere [in] North America, Europe, Asia. Everyone that [sold virtual tickets] did not sell as many viewings as we would have sold tickets for large screens. It’s only a replacement for now.” 

Fortin shared that customers had even written to him requesting for films they watched through the Online Cinema venture to be screened in person, demonstrating a demand for a classic, in-person cinema experience. Renaud-Lorrain echoed Fortin’s sentiments, noting that cinema owners need more time to consider whether or not virtual cinemas should continue in tandem with physical reopenings in the coming months. 

“This kind of online cinema is a good example of acting quickly in a crisis,” Renaud-Lorrain said. “Because we acted quickly, we maybe didn’t put as much effort in as we would in this kind of project in the future. It’s something to consider.”

While Montreal’s film community has rallied around their local cinemas, only time will tell what the future for in-person cinema will look like. With fears of a second wave of COVID-19, cinema owners must be careful not to be overly optimistic about relaxed guidance from the government, and consider what works for their own venue.  For community gems Cinéma Modern and Cinéma du Parc, customers can trust that their safety is prioritized as they look to the future beyond the pandemic. 

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