Montreal’s Independent Cinema Scene Faces a Prolonged Intermission

Graphic by Erin Sass

Off to the Picture Shows?

Interior. McLennan Library. Evening. 

McGill student Rachel is sitting behind a carrel desk on the fifth floor of McLennan. The year is 2019, she is maskless, and she is more concerned with submitting her POLI 320 paper in time than abiding by physical distancing measures. She just made it through the final five hundred words of her essay on Quebec sovereignty, and her fingers are practically numb from typing so fast. It’s too cold to wait outside in line for a club, and her appetite is already satiated from the expired Bento Bowl she regretfully purchased in the Redpath basement two hours ago. There’s only one iconic Montreal activity left that speaks to her sleep-deprived, stressed-out soul: a trip to the movies.

Local cinemas in Montreal contribute to the vibrant social economy of the city by providing a platform for Québecois film directors and independent studios to showcase their work. Yet, with rising COVID-19 case counts across the country, those memorable visits to Montreal cinemas are beginning to feel a little bit like classic films themselves: social habits deemed wildly inappropriate by today’s standards remembered in a grainy, black-and-white haze. 

An activity that hinges upon laughing, screaming, and chowing down on snacks together in a concealed space doesn’t exactly fall within the Quebec government’s red zone restrictions. So, how can students give back to the Montreal independent cinema community during these uncharted times? 

The Bull & Bear sat down with Mr. Mario Fortin, the General Director of three independent cinemas on the Island of Montreal: Cinéma du Parc, du Musée, and Beaubien. Mr. Fortin shared some of his fondest memories working within the Montreal local cinema scene, as well as some grim realities the industry is facing amid tightening COVID-19 restrictions. 

Remembering the Golden Age of Montreal’s Independent Cinemas 

Before COVID-19 upended virtually every facet of our lives, going to see a film in a cinema with others was a staple of the Montreal student experience. Cinemas like du Parc or du Musée would often include student discounts so that even those living on a tight budget could afford the chance to see a live show in person.

“I went to a film with journalists once,” shared Mr. Fortin. “They’re not supposed to be alive, they’re not supposed to have emotions. When one of them sniffed, it was a tsunami of emotion!” Fortin laughed. “Sure enough, the next morning, all the critics everywhere admitted they cried watching the film.”

Watching films in-person in a cinema has the power to connect people from all walks of life through laughter, tears, and sometimes even screams. However, Mr. Fortin admits that in recent years, the rise of digital cinemas and streaming services like Netflix has damaged the appeal of attending theatres the old-fashioned way.

“Shooting films with a digital camera. You can do a feature film in 4K, Adobe, with an iPhone!” While the rise of digital theatre has threatened cinemas like Cinéma du Parc, which makes use of traditional projectors in their screenings, Mr. Fortin concedes that this change makes the process of filmmaking more accessible to filmmakers from different backgrounds. “It shuts down all the barriers to creation, to the imagination, to someone who wants to tell a story.”

Thus, Montreal cinemas have long been adapting to changing industry standards, even before the coronavirus hit. Fortin shared how changes in viewing habits have forced Cinéma du Parc, Musée, and Beaubien to exercise creative problem-solving skills to keep people invested in live cinema. 

“Event was the magic word on March 11th,” he shared. “Today, it’s only getting bigger. We are working on creating events. Films will stay for a shorter period of time on the large screen.”

And events there have been. Throughout the year, Cinéma du Parc hosts various film festivals, late-night screenings of cult classics, and even affords space in their lobby to showcase creations of emerging Québecois artists. One year, Sarah went to a packed midnight screening of Charlie Kaufmen’s oddball hit Being John Malkovich at Cinéma du Parc. Another year, Sam attended a live screening of the Academy Awards that was free for all Montreal residents to attend. A red carpet was unrolled in front of the main entrance to the cinemas, and there was even a raffle to win posters of the nominated films!

Planning, Planning, Then Planning Some More To Navigate Changing Restrictions

When the Quebec government announced the initial wave of COVID-19 restrictions in early March, employee well-being was at the forefront of Mr. Fortin’s mind: “We had to fill in an unemployment form for 58 people. The last couple of days we have been talking about the mental fragility of so many people.” In an attempt to minimize pandemic layoffs, Fortin explained the necessity of being able to adapt in such uncertain times.

“The time between the announcement by the elected officials and the time when the cheque comes in the mail is calculated in months,” said Fortin, “that’s when I took my film programming hat and removed it and put my accounting hat on: it was a matter of accounting for budgets. Scenario A, Scenario B, Scenario C… trying to see where we stand and address all these things day by day. I don’t think I ever worked that hard in my whole career.”

When The Bull & Bear asked him to detail how Cinéma du Parc addressed the restrictions, Fortin emphasized how unprecedented it was to close down the cinema: “We should reserve four or five hours to discuss all this. It is something we have never seen before. Cinemas around the world almost never close.” 

Fortin explained how Cinéma du Parc “reopened for two and a half months at the end of July, early August, there again it was trial and error. We didn’t know what the security, safety, cleanliness requests were, but it involved on the floor … many scenarios. Two weeks before reopening, I had all my staff back in … we did scenarios: half the staff were customers, half were employees. How do we line up the people? How do they come in and out of the cinema?” 

After months of government-sanctioned closure, Fortin and the team at Cinéma du Parc are now focused on how to move forward. “It was a learning period for those past seven months. Now we are ready to face all scenarios, because it’s going to be like this for many months ahead of us. All we want is to reopen.”

The General Director of the independent cinema concluded the interview with something that veered from the traditional interview format. Rather than answering more of our questions, he paused and instead flipped the script on us student journalists to pose some questions himself. 

“We have some discounts for students. We have various discounts. Price is not an object. We put films later in the night, earlier in the morning. What do you want from us? How can we help you see more films, to fill your need to live experiences in the cinema?” 

What McGill Students Can Do to Support The City’s Independent Cinema Scene 

Although students may not be able to attend screenings again for a while, Fortin remains positive as to the ways the McGill community can support the Cinéma. “You can go on our website and purchase gift certificates. It’s good for the cash flow, but it will never replace the amount of money … the business we have lost,” elaborated Fortin. “We don’t normally give numbers, but so far closing our three cinemas has been over a million and a half dollars of business that we have lost.”

Additionally, Fortin and Cinéma du Parc are using online screenings to combine socially distanced film viewing and support for local cinemas. “A film distributor in New York said, ‘Okay, we will do something for you … We will put something on our platform where your customers can purchase something to look at at home, and we will give you back a portion of your money.’” Students can utilize these events to both support the cinema and watch a movie in a more wholesome way.

Fortin emphasized that following and sharing Cinéma du Parc’s posts on online platforms (like their Facebook page) is crucial to the cinema’s success upon reopening. “We kept in touch with our customers through our newsletter and website.” Fortin explained that just by contributing “a little bit of money that you would use to see a film” now, you can ensure the continuation of the Cinéma once restrictions are eased. “It’s only a matter of keeping [in] touch with our customers. This would be another way for students from McGill to help us.”

Looking Forward to the Not So Distant (Or Distanced) Future

Cinéma du Parc is determined to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic stronger than ever, and Fortin maintains the necessity of human connection in a time when many are overwhelmed by the isolating social shift to the Internet. Once it becomes possible, Cinéma du Parc is dedicated to fostering community through shared emotional experiences. As Fortin put it, “The feeling of being together will never be replaced by technology.”

(Oh, and in case you were wondering what single factor makes the Cinéma du Parc popcorn so tasty? “Freshness,” revealed Mr. Fortin. He smiled, then he took a sip of whipped cream off his morning coffee.)

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