Vancouver Island movie theatres back in business this week

Select movie theatres on Vancouver Island will open their doors this week as the second-stage of the provincial restart attempts to breathe new life into the local entertainment industry.

Theatres are permitted to re-open June 15 with a maximum of 50 people in reserved seats, and everyone wearing masks at all times. With appropriate social distancing per provincial health protocols, theatres from Victoria to Courtenay are ready to welcome back crowds as soon as today.

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“It’s a fun business when we have lots of people in our buildings watching movies,” said Ken Mont, the executive director of operations in B.C. for Cineplex, whose Victoria properties include SilverCity and two Cineplex Odeon locations.

“To see dark screens was tough. We’ve been prepping for the day when it would be our turn.”

This marks the second restart for B.C. movie theatres during the pandemic; movie houses in the province re-opened after several months of closure at this very same point last year, only to see screens go dark during the nationwide shutdown in November. Movies have not been screened inside a theatre in seven months — a layoff that likely would have become permanent for some, had it lasted through the summer.

Not to say there weren’t casualties. Landmark 4 University Heights in Gordon Head closed permanently in July, after its lease expired, and two others, IMAX Victoria and Cinecenta at the University of Victoria, have not announced the exact dates of their return. Neither one is in danger of closing, but both are expected to to remain closed for several more weeks.

“Movie theatres really struggled during this time,” said manager Lindsay Pomper of Sidney’s Star Cinema, which re-opens June 18 with screenings of the thriller, A Quiet Place Part II. “We were lucky to stay afloat. We’ll be open, but it will still be a challenge.”

Pomper said the excitement surrounding this week’s news dwarfs the muted response to last summer’s return to theatres which, in the absence of new films, focused mostly on classics and second-run features. With the rising number of people receiving their dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and an influx of blockbusters, Pomper expects a busy few months ahead.

“Back then there was still a lot of hesitation about going out in public. The major studios weren’t releasing films. When we opened last summer, there was no selection. This feels significantly different.”

Major films studios have several tentpole releases in waiting, which are expected to buoy profits right out of the gate.

In the Heights, a musical from Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, the 101 Dalmatians origin story, Cruella, and horror hit The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It are among the first arrivals. Fast & Furious 9, Black Widow, and Space Jam: A New Legacy top the second wave coming to screens this summer.

It will be a much-needed injection of life for local theatres. Many remained open for food delivery during the pandemic, with Skip the Dishes and other services doing brisk business with at-home popcorn orders, but returns barely offset staffing costs. Drive-in movies were also nothing more than a stop-gap measure in Victoria and the Cowichan Valley last year, as they proved too expensive to produce.

The direct-to-consumer streaming model was employed by top studios — from the Disney+ platform to Amazon’s Prime Video Cinema — but those services can’t compare to seeing a movie live in a theatre, Landmark Cinemas CEO Bill Walker said. “Studios will eventually settle back into a conventional model as theatres are still the most important first window, from a financial perspective, in the life cycle of a movie.”

Nathan Searer, chief operations officer of Golin Cinemas, which owns the Capitol 6, said the popular theatre will re-open June 18. His company put seats on sale Sunday, and sales were brisk. That tells him movie fans are engaged and ready for the big screen. “We’re definitely excited to welcome guest back to the theatre,” he said. “I’m sure they are missing it as much as we’ve missed having them here.”

The recovery process will not be immediate. But with some of the biggest movies of the year still to come (the latest James Bond entry, No Time To Die, is due in October, while Top Gun: Maverick is set for November) the experience should be seamless by the time students return to school in September.

“We know that the next three months are going to continue to be up and down and not perfect, but it’s about getting people back and reengaged in moviegoing,” Walker said. “By the fall, we should be in a much better place.”

The Vic Theatre on Douglas Street will test a new model when it opens June 24. Kathy Kay of the Victoria Film Festival, which also manages The Vic, said the movie house will open with 2021 Oscar favourites The Father, Promising Young Woman, and Judas and the Black Messiah, which were limited to streaming sites upon their release. The Vic will also offer a series of Cary Grant favourites during its Saturday matinee series before dipping back into the wider pool of offerings.

Capacity limits and COVID-19 safety measures will remind moviegoers of the not-too-distant past. The social lives of Island residents will eventually rebound, however, with help from the movies.

“I don’t know about you, but when things go wrong, I like to go to the movies,” Kay said. “I’ve missed it.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

Theatre opening dates

Vancouver Island movie theatres are planning reopen in the coming weeks. Here’s a rundown of their planned dates.

JUNE 15

  • Avalon Cinema Centre, Nanaimo
  • Cineplex Odeon Westshore Cinemas, Langford
  • Cineplex Odeon Victoria Cinemas
  • Galaxy Cinemas Nanaimo
  • Landmark Cinemas Campbell River
  • The Rialto, Courtenay
  • SilverCity Victoria Cinemas

JUNE 18

  • Capitol 6 Theatres, Victoria
  • Star Cinema, Sidney

JUNE 24

  • The Vic Theatre, Victoria

JUNE 25

  • The Paramount, Port Alberni

SEPTEMBER

  • Cinecenta (University of Victoria)

TBA

  • IMAX Victoria

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