November 4 2020 - City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday night in favour of a motion from Councillor Rob Hutchiston, put forth on behalf of The Screening Room theatre.
The theatre’s operations have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many constituents have reportedly reached out to their councillors in concern. But it’s not just individuals that could lose out if the theatre shutters, Hutchison said.
“When we had a Cineplex close [downtown] a few years back, businesses were very concerned,” Hutchison said at Council’s meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. “Theatres attract people, and those people may go out for dinner, and they may go shopping before or after… There’s a multiplier effect going on here.”
Hutchison’s bill calls on the Federal Government to ensure movie theatres have access to the Canada Emergency Rental Subsidy Program (CERS), and to rework the financial assistance available to theatres through Heritage Canada. It also asked the provincial government to extend their commercial eviction ban for six more months.
The motion 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, MPP Randy Hillier, and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM).
Hutchison noted that movie theatres directly employ over 15,000 Canadians, and called them integral to the social, cultural and economic life of communities.
‘There’s no precedent’ in the movie business
Wendy Huot, The Screening Room’s owner, made a delegation to council Tuesday night, as well. She pointed out that when a movie theatre goes out of business, it’s uncommon for a new owner to take over.
“If a cinema space goes out of business, often it doesn’t come back,” Huot said. She noted that in the early 20th century, there were as many as five movie houses on Princess Street in Kingston. Trailhead, Ale House and Stages Night Club have all at one point been movie theatres, she said.
Having leveraged as many financial assistance programs as she could to this point, Huot said the theatre is still losing thousands of dollars a month.
She has plans to launch a “Friends of The Screening Room” fundraising campaign this month, so that people can sponsor a movie seat even if they’re not comfortable attending. She’s also planning a “free movies for three years” gold card campaign. She said she expects the initiatives to do well, and potentially offset her 2020 losses.
The uncertainty for 2021, however, remains.
“This is totally new for movie theatres,” she told Council, describing how the impact is being felt at all levels of the industry. Rumors are circulating that highly anticipated 2021 films will be sold to Netflix for release, rather than sent to theatres, she said. “There’s no precedent for the bottom just dropping out on the movie business.”
Greg Tilson, a local film producer and Artistic Director of the Skeleton Park Arts Festival, also addressed Council on behalf of The Screening Room. He spoke to its value as a mainstay venue for film festivals and other cultural events. “What The Screening Room offers Kingston… is something that could never be achieved through an online experience like Netflix,” he said, noting that a large number of Kingston-based festivals depend on The Screening Room as a popular festival venue.
Councillor Jim Neill, who seconded Hutchison’s motion, added that The Screening Room’s survival is important “not just to the core of the city, but to all of the city.”
While Council has not discussed providing any direct funding relief to the theatre, Neill said he believes that by tabling the issue and expressing concern, Council has helped raise critical public awareness and support.
“I plan to go to two movies this week, myself,” he said.
Story by Samantha Butler Hassan of The Kingstonist for the Local Journalism Initiative