The University Heights movie theatre is closed for good, and Colin Plant is bereft.
“I have a lot of good memories of sticky floors in that place,” the Saanich councillor says. That, and the sound from the show next door bleeding through the walls.
He’s only being slightly tongue-in-cheek. The fourplex might not have been the most modern cinema — the technology wasn’t cutting edge, the screens weren’t the biggest, and the seats weren’t the size of your first car — but when you settled in for the show it was like slipping on an old coat that, while a bit frayed at the cuffs and collar, was still satisfyingly comfy.
So, yes, Plant was glum when Landmark Cinemas announced Friday that the 33-year-old theatre had closed for good. His response was similar to that of other patrons, who reacted in the way they would upon learning that a neighbour’s lovely-but-creaky dog had died. “It wasn’t a surprise,” Plant said. Still, it was a loss.
The closure came down to a combination of factors: the pandemic that shut all theatres in mid-March, a lease that expired in June and the impending redevelopment of the University Heights shopping centre. “It wasn’t anything we planned for,” Landmark CEO Bill Walker said Saturday, on the phone from Alberta.
The chain has actually reopened the rest of its B.C. locations, including those in Nanaimo, Port Alberni, Courtenay and Campbell River. But even then the province’s 50-person capacity limits and the lack of new movies to show have had a dampening effect.
“It’s not exactly a profit seeking venture,” is the way Walker describes the situation. Right now, all they’re trying to do is keep theatre-goers engaged by showing old movies until new ones are released.
When will that be? No one is sure. Studios have lots of fresh product on the shelf, ready to go, and some have even scheduled new releases for August, though Walker has his doubts about that latter date. “Canada is only part of the equation,” he said. Films won’t be screened until the whole North American market opens up again, something that seems unlikely given the wildfire to our south. Note that California ordered the indefinite closure of all movie theatres this week.
Four Greater Victoria cinemas — SilverCity, Imax Victoria at the Royal B.C. Museum, the Capitol 6 on Yates Street and Sidney’s Star Cinema, in a temporary, 35-seat location — reopened two weeks ago, joining the Vic Theatre, which came back to life June 12.
It’s a bit weird seeing no more than 50 people in the 370-seat Imax, says theatre director Paul Wild. The Imax could still comply with physical-distancing requirements if the province doubled capacity to 100.
At least they’re open, though, giving people a welcome diversion from the pandemic. “It just suspends you, takes you out of life for a bit,” Wild says. Evening showings of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, a nice bit of escapism, have drawn well.
Just down the street, the Vic Theatre has carefully mapped out seating arrangements — singles, doubles, a row where a family of four can sit together — that comply with those distancing requirements. At least the little theatre, which specializes in showing hidden gems, doesn’t depend on new, first-run movies that you can’t see anywhere else, the bread and butter for chains like Landmark.
The Vic is a fun, no-frills, quirky place to watch a movie, just like the old Roxy Cine-Gog on Quadra or even the long-gone Caprice in Langford, which had the same familiar neighbourhood feel as University Heights. (“My first date with my wife was at the Caprice,” Plant noted. “Dumb and Dumber. That went OK.”)
Both Plant and Walker spoke of the appeal of theatres like that, the ones where the staff know the regulars and the regulars know the staff. They become part of, or contribute to, our sense of community, something you don’t get while snoring on the couch as Netflix silently demands to know if you’re still watching. Even before COVID-19 we were becoming more and more isolated from one another.
Perhaps that will change after the pandemic. Maybe once we’re actually allowed to be with other people, to enjoy shared experiences — concerts, hockey games, plays, movies — we’ll be more eager to do so. Maybe we’ll need more places to gather.
“Hopefully,” Walker said, “we’ll be back in Victoria another time.”