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A welcomed return to the movies

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Members of Metro Cinema and the Edmonton International Film Festival (EIFF) are happy movie theatres are back in full swing. After nearly six months of being closed, Jun. 10, 2021, marked the day movie theatres could finally open again to the public in Alberta, according to a CBC article. Now, almost every theatre has opened again throughout Edmonton with limited restrictions in place.

Though Edmonton’s film community is thriving again, the journey has not been an easy one. After an initial closure in March of 2020, Nov. 26, 2020, marked the second closure of Edmonton’s staple art house theatre, Metro Cinema. Metro Cinema stayed open during the summer months of 2020, according to their social media, but decided to shut its doors early as COVID numbers rose in the province. Now, due to another increase in COVID cases in the province and a staff member testing positive on Dec. 23, 2021, Metro announced a temporary closure at the time of this article’s publication.

Dan Smith, director of Metro Cinema, reflects on the early days of Metro’s closure during the pandemic and dealing with the theatre’s most prominent monetary issue: having no in-person audience.

“There was a struggle at that point… not knowing when we would reopen, having essentially almost zero revenue coming in,” said Smith. “And, as a nonprofit, we were still also really trying to find a way to fulfill our mandate and bring films to the public… feeling a responsibility to keep our staff employed, busy, healthy, all of those kinds of pressures, and then really just trying to figure out how we go about reopening when it’s safe to do so.”

One of the biggest struggles Smith recalls is being at the mercy of Hollywood and the American movie industry. “We found ourselves in an industry that was also shifting pretty dramatically. A lot of what happens in the film exhibition industry is really dictated by what’s going on in the United States,” explains Smith.

“A lot of the film distributors were basically sitting and waiting, and they didn’t want to release the films when theatres in the States were either closed or not doing well. So, we found ourselves having a harder time finding new release films to bring in.”

Though the pandemic provided some hardships, Metro found success by thinking outside the box. As movie streaming services such as Crave, Netflix, and Disney+ were incredibly successful during the pandemic, Metro was able to create virtual screenings in hopes of keeping up with their audience’s needs.

“Certain film distributors who already had online platforms, or could get them up and running in short order, they approached independent theatres that would normally have been showing some of these films. We worked out an arrangement where we would advertise these films and promote them to our communities. They would be viewed online, and the revenue would be split,” said Smith.

“We’re continuing to give alternative options to viewing things. So, it’s not just Netflix and Crave.”

Aside from virtual screenings, Metro also implemented popcorn pop-ups, allowing community members to order curbside popcorn and drinks. “We recently started doing popcorn pop-ups. So, rather than signing up with SkipTheDishes or Uber Eats, we’ve just been doing curbside pickup popcorn orders,” said Smith. “Those have been pretty successful.”

However, one of the biggest successes was with Metro’s poster auction. For years, Metro volunteer graphic designers have created custom movie posters for display in the theatre and around the city. 2018 marked the first time audiences could bid on these posters to take home. Metro held the auction again in 2020 and 2021.

“We had a full slate of films. A lot of those films would get 11 by 17 posters designed by volunteer graphic artists. We didn’t really have a way to include them in a lot of the stuff we were doing. So, we came up with this idea for a poster auction where we auctioned off a number of designs from the past,” said Smith. “And then the grand prize of that auction was the opportunity to have one of the poster designers work with you to create your own full theatrical-sized poster for a film of your choice.”

On the film festival side, EIFF found success in other ways. EIFF is Edmonton’s most prominent and only Oscar-qualifying film festival, completing its 34th year of programming in 2020. The festival showcases numerous local and international films every year from Oct. 1-10.

Kerrie Long, the recently retired producer of EIFF, explains the options facing EIFF during the pandemic.

“Last year in 2020, we created three different scenarios… do we go completely online? Will theatres be open? So, we’re having to create two, three different scenarios based on what we think might happen and be ready to go on whichever one is available to us at the time,” explains Long.

One of EIFF’s biggest successes was teaming up with Super Channel to provide online screenings for EIFF’s 2020 festival. For an additional fee, movie-goers could subscribe to Super Channel through video streaming services like Apple TV, Prime Video, or through their television service provider. This initiative gave movie-goers the option to watch EIFF films at home or at the theatre.

“We were approached by Super Channel in 2020. Super Channel, a lot of people don’t realize that they’re an Edmonton-based company, and they’re a subscriber base specialty channel that’s broadcast across Canada. They suggested that they could partner with us and present some of our films screening at the film festival and broadcast them nationwide,” said Long.

“We tried to make as many screenings in theatre concurrent with the screening on Super Channel, so they were happening at the same time to give you that festival feeling.”

Long says that this online initiative and help from Canada’s Emergency Response Benefit led to the festival having its best financial year.

“We came out of 2020 as probably, well, easily, in my experience, the most successful festival financially that we’ve had in my 17 years leading the film festival. That’s thanks to obviously the Canada emergency funding, that sort of thing,” explains Long. “We didn’t have to lay anyone off. We only have three employees full-time year-round and a number of contractors, and not having the big after-party galas in 2020, which are very expensive… actually really helped us.”

In 2021, EIFF returned to in-person screenings for most of their films, with theatres at 30 per cent capacity. EIFF also mandated mask restrictions and proof of vaccination for audiences joining in person. Highlights of the festival included local filmmaker Christopher Donaldson’s horror film Ditched, Justin Monroe’s seminal documentary Holy Frit, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s mind-bender Memoria.

Since opening again in June of 2021, Metro Cinema has screened numerous hit films such as the Nicolas Cage sensation, Pig; the Japanese international drama, Drive My Car; and the 2021 Palme d’Or winner, Titane. The theatre has also screened numerous film series like Not Your Final Girl — a series of scary films focused on female protagonists destroying traditional female norms and tropes.

Though Metro and EIFF are somewhat back to normal operations, the most significant factor that helped Metro Cinema and EIFF through the pandemic was listening to their dedicated audience.

“I think what (virtual screenings have) been really successful for is providing alternatives to people, reminding people that we’re still here, and there are ways to support local theatres and local businesses,” said Smith. “And, continuing to be engaged with our community, because it’s a big part of what we do as a nonprofit, community theatre. It allowed us to continue to interact and engage with our community.”

“I would just recommend that executive directors and producers of festivals keep their ear to the ground and listen to audiences and stay attuned to what it is they need,” agrees Long. “Because what they need now is probably different than what they needed a year ago.”

“Just stay attuned to that, listen to your audience, and you will remain relevant.”

Metro Cinema is located near the University of Alberta, just off Whyte Avenue (8712 109 St NW). The full slate of Metro’s showtimes can be found at www.metrocinema.org or on their social media.

EIFF runs every year from Oct. 1-10 at Landmark Cinemas 9, located in City Centre Mall. You can follow EIFF on their social media accounts for updates and announcements about the festival.

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