On Cineplex’s booking practices, controversy at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Netflix, and the role of independent cinemas.
By Tom Charity (VIFF Year-Round Programmer) This article represents the views of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Vancouver International Film Festival.
By now, you may have heard something about the online petition organized by our friends at the Rio Theatre calling out Cineplex for blocking distributors from booking films at independent venues. For example, if you want to see Parasite, even four months after it went on general release, chances are you will only have the choice to watch it in a Cineplex theatre. This is, the petition states, “unlawful practice.”
With Cineplex enjoying approximately 80% market share in the Canadian exhibition sector, and on the verge of being bought out by a foreign company (UK’s Cineworld, which operates the Regal chain in the US), independent cinemas including VIFF have banded together to form a coalition under the banner NICE, the Network of Independent Canadian Exhibitors, to lobby politicians and the Competition Bureau to ensure a fairer playing field.
As VIFF’s Year-Round programmer, I can assure you that “exclusive” bookings are not only a very real thing, but are, in fact, standard business practice. I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me the Competition Bureau should indeed investigate and take a position here.
As a dedicated filmgoer, I believe the environment in which you experience a movie makes a profound difference. Naming no names, but there are supposedly up-market theatres in Vancouver that I won’t frequent. When I go to the movies, I don’t want to feel like I’m stepping into a food mall. I also don’t appreciate being subjected to astronomical concession prices, endless promotional pre-shows, and (worst of all) the theatre lights slamming on just as the end credits start to roll (or even before!). In other words, I am one of those patrons who would prefer to have the choice to watch a movie like Parasite at the Rio, or indeed here at the Film Centre.
But I want to link this story to another news item that popped up this week, a report in the Globe and Mail in which a couple of Canadian independent distributors, Mongrel Media and Films We Like, sounded the alarm about the programming at TIFF’s Bell Lightbox in Toronto. A representative from Mongrel Media said that he had been told the Lightbox could cut back the number of new releases they support by as much as 50%, offering fewer screenings across the board, and that titles which did not hit a certain box office minimum ($2000 in the first weekend) would not be held for a second week–without exception. (TIFF disputed these claims.) From the point of view of an art house distributor like Mongrel, a publicly funded institution like the Bell Lightbox has a mission and a mandate to support international art house film – which is almost always going to be less commercial. And what is the Lightbox doing showing all these Netflix movies, anyway?
Of course this final point hits close to home. This winter we made the decision to showcase half a dozen Netflix movies at the Film Centre, including The Irishman, Uncut Gems, Marriage Story and The Two Popes. The first two titles on that list are among the most popular films we have shown, so there is an obvious financial incentive in doing so. In my opinion, speaking as a film lover as well as a curator, Vancouver audiences deserve the opportunity to experience these outstanding movies in a cinema. But I am also acutely aware that showing The Irishman for two weeks entailed sacrificing the opportunity to show perhaps four, five, or six smaller movies that we might otherwise have been able to support. Movies distributed by companies like Films We Like, perhaps. (We sometimes show movies released by Mongrel Media… but for some strange reason they almost always give them to Cineplex instead.)
There is a balance to be struck. Margins are tight for all of us in the independent cultural world, even for a multi-million dollar giant like TIFF, apparently – and make no mistake, you guys (we guys) watching Netflix every night are part of the problem.
Here at VIFF, we are privileged to receive public monies that help alleviate some of the financial pressures most independent cinemas face – pressures like paying the mortgage, for instance. But the reality is that even here, our success is measured most often not by the diversity, ambition and depth of our programming, but by bums in seats.
I’m reconciled with that reality. I have never seen much value in showing masterpieces to empty houses. But audiences can be cultivated. And we remain fundamentally committed to extending the range of cinema available to our audiences, and that includes bringing in marginal, experimental and low-budget film that has little prospect of breaking even. It includes supporting Canadian filmmakers – next week we have multiple shows of Matthew Rankin’s debut feature The Twentieth Century and Zacharias Kunuk’s One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, and next month To Live to Sing, Ash, Easy Land, and three films by and about Indigenous women, Rustic Oracle, Kuessipan, and a return engagement for The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. (One of these films is released through Mongrel Media, by the way… it still doesn’t have a trailer.) And we will also be showing acclaimed international art house films like Beanpole, The Wild Goose Lake, and The Cordillera of Dreams.
In other words, it’s not a priority for VIFF to jump in and share the spoils that a mainstream release like Little Women or even Parasite would bring. But we support our comrades in the for-profit independent exhibition sector in this fight for a seat at the table. And we look forward to opening our second screen in the fall, a 40-seat micro cinema that will substantially enhance our ability to show more films of different types and sizes, to meet audience demand for extended runs and to help local filmmakers get a foot on the ladder.