Can B.C. cinemas stage a silver-screen resurgence?

StatsCan report examines challenges ahead for industry after major losses for theatres

The Rio Theatre in Vancouver | Photo: Chung Chow, BIV

In space, no one can hear you scream, as they say in the tagline for 1979’s Alien.

But for cinemas throughout much of 2020 and 2021, no one could see the screens.

Revenue for Canadian theatres sunk 70.6% last year compared with 2018, according to a report released Monday from Statistics Canada diving into losses the exhibition industry has faced over the past year. In total, operating revenue went from nearly $2 billion to $553 million between 2018 and 2020.

The impacts were tangible for B.C.-based independent theatre chains like Hollywood 3 Cinemas PM Ltd. as cinemas sat empty from November 2020 to June 2021 due to provincial orders aimed at stymieing the spread of COVID-19.

Hollywood 3 Cinemas Rahim Manji said efforts to work with a landlord resulted in his chain losing one of its five locations before cinephiles could begin trickling in again this past summer.

“They didn’t want to work with us during the pandemic, and so we ended up closing that [White Rock] theatre down. They wanted to raise our rents during the pandemic, and it just didn’t make sense,” he told BIV over the summer.

Operating expenses fell 50% to $787 million between 2018 and 20, according to the StatsCan report.

Costs attributed to salaries and benefits fell 46% to $145 million during that same period, while wage subsidies and support programs helped cover part of employee payrolls.

And theatres are not in the all-clear as B.C. cinemas still navigate challenges such as capacity limits, mask mandates and social distancing amid Step 3 of its four-stage reopening plan.

Vaccination cards are also required for entry, which may draw some patrons back in or turn others aways.

“The pace of recovery will be influenced by some of the same challenges faced by the motion picture and video exhibition industry before the pandemic: rising competition from home entertainment options in recent years and attendance that has not increased since 2014,” the StatsCan report stated.

But the box office is showing signs of a solid rebound in North America.

Comic-book sequel Venom: Let There Be Carnage snagged the largest opening of the pandemic era with a US$90.1 million haul this past weekend, according to Comscore.

And Vancouver’s influence on the cinema-going experience was on display as well with B.C. crews at visual effects house DNEG (Double Negative Ltd.) contributing to the Venom sequel. No. 2 at the box office, animated feature The Addams Family 2, also featured work from Cinesite Inc.’s Vancouver studio.

“The industry will also continue to leverage pre-pandemic specialized movie experience trends that helped operating revenues grow in Canada,” the StatsCan report stated.

“For example, before the pandemic, several theatres were offering a larger variety of available concessions, including full meals, alcoholic beverages, and enhanced seating and viewing options.”

A big boost to local cinemas also appears imminent this coming weekend after No Time to Die, the 25th film in the James Bond spy franchise, brought in US$119 million the international box office ahead of its North American debut.

Shaken martinis might be in order at some of the cinemas offering alcoholic beverages, as highlighted in the StatsCan report.