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Curtain coming down at Duncan Caprice Theatre, last movie theatre in town

Hollywood 3 Cinemas owner Moby Amarsi said the closure was a last-minute decision after a rent increase
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The Caprice Theatre in Duncan. GOOGLE STREET VIEW

Rumours that Duncan’s last movie theatre was closing began swirling Saturday when residents spotted employees loading a U-Haul at the Duncan Caprice Theatre.

A statement from the twin-screen movie theatre the next day on social media confirmed its screens had permanently gone dark after 40 years under various operators, including Hollywood 3 Cinemas for the past 10 years.

“This was not an easy decision and we understand it was sudden, but know that we are all absolutely devastated by it,” the statement said. “From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you for 10 fabulous years.”

Hollywood 3 Cinemas owner Moby Amarsi said the closing was a last-minute decision.

“I was hoping to get a few months’ extension. We had another clause in the lease that would have given us another two years.”

But Amarsi said the building’s Hong Kong-based landlord gave him only 15 days to respond to a 300 per cent rent increase — something he said would have been “probably bearable” pre-pandemic, but unfeasible now.

Many former and current residents of the Cowichan Valley have been sharing on social media fond memories of first dates and family outings at the Duncan Caprice.

For Duncan residents, the loss of the theatre means that the nearest dedicated cinemas are more than a 40-minute drive away in either Nanaimo or Langford, although the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre in the Cowichan Community Centre occasionally screens films.

Originally named the Caprice Twin, the theatre opened in 1982 on the former site of the Cowichan Creamery at 404 Duncan St. and became the sole movie theatre in town when the 58-year-old Odeon Theatre at Station Street closed the following year.

The Caprice was upgraded to digital projection in 2014 when Hollywood 3 Cinemas, an independent movie theatre chain, took over operations — the same year the Caprice Theatre in Langford closed its doors.

Amarsi said new regulations from movie distributors and the recent shift of some movies going direct-to-streaming have made it difficult to operate small theatres such as the Caprice.

“Distributors want us to hold [a movie] for three weeks at a time,” he said. “If you hold it for three weeks, and you only have two screens or a single screen and there are three or four movies coming out, you’re stuck with that same movie.”

As for the Duncan Drive-In, a Hollywood 3 Cinemas drive-in movie theatre located at Cowichan Exhibition Park, Amarsi said “it did very well” during COVID-19 restrictions, but will not be returning this summer.

The Network of Independent Canadian Exhibitors, a national cinema organization, said in October that many independent theatres are in a tough position where they have to repay Canada Emergency Business Account loans while audiences have yet to fully return.

“Independent cinemas are difficult to reopen; we very rarely hear of venues being brought back to life,” the organization said in a statement.

Amarsi, who is now based in the Lower Mainland — where he runs two movie theatres in Pitt Meadows and White Rock — got his start in the business about 20 years ago with a movie theatre in Qualicum Beach.

He said he is still hoping to keep the movie magic alive in Duncan after receiving many offers of support and help. “We have floated the idea of maybe converting it into a non-profit.”

Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples said she’s supportive of the idea, citing successful non-profit theatres in Powell River and Sidney.

“It would be fantastic if that were to happen,” she said. “I love the idea of that space for the community, not just for blockbuster movies, but also for a lot of other learning opportunities and coming together.”

She said she’s also open to a community cinema in another location.

Given the right programming, a non-profit cinema could be well-utilized, she said. “I would support it if a community group wanted to do it.”

mjlo@timescolonist.com