Archive for March, 2013

Limited Screening: In Which a Chain Movie Outfit Abandons Downtown Kingston but a Local Gem Still Shines.

By Jamie Swift

valentines_theatreA year ago last February a couple of dozen people gathered on a chilly afternoon in front of the Empire cinema on downtown Princess Street. It wasn’t long before the doors of the venerable movie house with the ornate façade were plastered with Valentine’s Day stickers.

Most had been fashioned by the children who made up half the crowd. They had taped their pink paper hearts all over the doors through which generations of Kingston movie-goers had passed.

Those days were numbered.

The Nova Scotia based Empire cinema chain had decided to follow the familiar corporate path of shuttering downtown movie houses, decamping to suburban big box land. The protestors from DARN! thought this was a bad idea and hoped to change the company’s mind by sending messages of love to Empire’s Stellarton headquarters.

“We love the movies downtown!” “Please keep our movie theatre open!”

After the television cameras and news photographers had left, the Downtown Action Revitalization Network people carefully removed their decorations. A volunteer  packed them up together with a letter explaining the community concern over the planned closure.

The company, part of the Sobey’s grocery and real estate colossus, never replied. Its “corporate social responsibility” claim states that “We believe a commitment to community is fundamental to sustaining our success and we encourage our employees, franchisees and affiliates to participate in enhancing the well-being of the communities in which they live and work. “

photo1In spite of it all, Empire closed the cinema. And, to add insult to injury, insisted on a “no-compete” clause in any sales agreement with potential buyers. Anyone buying the building, purpose built as a movie theatre, has to agree not to use it to …. show movies.

“People love to take in a movie and have dinner at one of our great local restaurants,” said DARN!’s Marney McDiarmid at the time. “Closing this magnet attraction would be bad for downtown and all the businesses that we support there.”

photo2The old cinema has been closed for months now.  A new Empire megaplex has sprung up just west of the Division Street ketchup strip – just behind the No Frills store that controversially relocated out there when another supermarket behemoth, Loblaws, closed its Bagot Street store outlet a few years back. Should they sell their near north end property, the buyer won’t be allowed to put a food store there.

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All is not lost. Kingston has a solid track record of supporting independent, downtown cinemas.

In 1988, the non-profit Princess Court Cinema opened its upstairs venue on Princess just below Division. The single screen, co-operatively run movie house enjoyed a good run, screening a diverse selection of films and often mixing several titles in a single week.

When the Princess Court closed some ten years later, it wasn’t long before Terry Atherton opened The Screening Room in a two screen space further down Princess. It proved fairly successful, but lots of work. After several years Ms. Atherton sold the Screening Room to Wendy Huot, its current owner.

The energetic Ms. Huot began to expand the Screening Room’s programming, adding a Cinematica Classics series. It features everything from musical classics like Singing in the Rain to the Coen brothers early, unforgettable classic The Big Lebowski. The Screening Room now has a sophisticated website and a membership-based Film Society. It also works with community groups to organize special documentary screenings featuring speakers on everything from the Jews of Nigeria (Re-Emerging) to recent developments in El Salvador. Or the efforts of Donald Trump to despoil the Scottish coast with golf courses.

Having a downtown cinema adds immeasurably to Kingston’s cultural mix. The Screening Room shows both first-run, quality movies that get short shrift from the megaplex outfits as well as art-house, foreign, alternative, and classic cinema. It also provides a vital home to our locally-based film festivals, ReelOut and the Kingston Canadian Film Festival.

Of course, some will say that the movie theatre is a thing of the past, soon to go the way of the broad-faced poteroo. That we’ll be streaming and downloading from here on in. That video stores are in decline. That we have to be realistic, recognizing that from here on in we’ll be sitting by ourselves, staring into postcard sized screens.

But there’s something wrong with this picture. What can replace the wonderful experience of watching a movie on a big screen with fine sound, in the company of others? And being able to stroll or cycle to the movies instead of driving out to a soulless expanse of asphalt only to be bombarded by a numbing barrage of commercial propaganda.

Think about it. At the megaplex you pay to be deluged by ads. The Screening Room offers freedom from commercial speech. No ads.
Kingston’s funky independent cinema has one thing in common with the canned corporate movie experience. It smells of popcorn. And yet it exists, even thrives, a step or two outside the commercial mainstream.  Instead of minimum wage hirelings, it is staffed by movie buffs who love the movies and get to see them free in exchange for their volunteer labour.

One final note: Wendy recently managed to procure a complete set of comfy seats from the downtown Empire after it closed.
Please join the folks from DARN! in one of our trademark swarms, this one in support of The Screening Room, Saturday, April 6. One marvelously creative wrinkle:  Harkening back to the days before the talkies, local musician Spencer Evans will accompany Buster Keaton short Cops on piano before the main feature, The Princess Bride.

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Kingston writer and realtor Mark Sinnett has a wonderful little article on his MachinesForLivingIn blog. It deals with the new Empire megaplex and the local commercial-entertainment nexus.

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