While Statistics Canada data showed cinemas returning to profitability in 2022, Ottawa theatre owners say they are still seeing much less business than pre-pandemic.

“This year is better than last year, and last year is better than the year before it, but they’re still not at pre-pandemic numbers,” said Daniel Demois, who co-owns the ByTowne cinema.

“If you look at the total North American box office compared to 2018, you’ll see that we’re not quite back there yet.”

According to Statistics Canada, movie cinema profit margins were in the black in 2022, but far lower than the years prior to the pandemic.

Demois said he hopes profitability will come closer to pre-pandemic levels a year from now, but he said there are some hurdles for his industry.

Fewer films to show

Demois said the pandemic created a growing gap in product because people couldn’t make movies. Hollywood strikes worsened the situation, causing production delays.

Additionally, he said, Hollywood now produces fewer middle-budget films, bread and butter for independent cinemas.

“Movies similar to Wes Anderson films, but not Wes Anderson, but similar kind of popular indie films. There’s less and less of those each year. And that’s the kind of film that does very well at an independent cinema because it’s sophisticated and critically acclaimed, but not a blockbuster that the majority of the population will be lining up for on its opening weekend.”

Streaming services

Another issue is that new movies go directly to movie streaming services instead of movie theatre screens, though local theatre The Mayfair periodically screens Netflix productions.

“That’s where a lot of those middle-budget films are going — direct to Netflix, for instance. Or they’re being created by Netflix. That kind of leaves us having to figure out other ways to get people out. Because, you know, we play a lot of indie art films and foreign films and I would say many of them aren’t performing as well as they used to,” said Demois.

The building of the ByTowne cinema with a banner saying "ByTowne" and another one saying "This week: The Shining, The Lost Boys, Persian Version, www.bytowne.ca, Coming Soon Cape Fear, Priscilla, Ottawa CDN, Film Fest."
While its bottom line is improving, the ByTowne Cinema is still not seeing the same business as before the pandemic. [Photo © Marissa Galko]

Fewer movies also mean multiplexes play them longer, which means independent movie theatres get them later.

Barbie wouldn’t have even been a screening option for us until [October 2023] because it was playing at the local multiplex for so long that we don’t have access to it until it’s finished there, which is another part of the issue,” said Demois.

Nick Ouzas, president of the Ottawa Film Society, said the streaming services have also commodified the film viewing experience.

“I mean, you know, it used to be years ago that going to see a film at the cinema was an event. But now … I can watch a film while I’m on the bus, right? So it’s really cheapened the experience for many people. So cinemas need to be more of a special place.”

Demois said that the ByTowne is adjusting by having more events and repertory screenings.

“Interactive screenings, singalongs, those are doing very well,” he said. “And that’s something that wasn’t quite as big of a part of a business at the ByTowne pre-pandemic. So we’re finding that older titles are definitely reaching a larger audience at the ByTowne now.”

Smaller audiences and higher costs

The Ottawa Film Society’s revenue relies more on its membership than movie screening. During the COVID-19 pandemic, membership plummeted, said Ouzas.

“We were closed for a couple of years. And then, you know, once things reopened, people were hesitant to go into big rooms with hundreds of people. So it’s kind of been a gradual recovery process from the pandemic itself. People are coming back, but I wouldn’t say they’re quite back to pre-pandemic levels yet.”

Ouzas said other financial pressures add insult to injury.

“Rental of the cinemas, rental of films, that’s all increased as well. So we’ve had to charge more. So even though revenue might be a little bit higher, you know, per member, say, the costs are higher as well.”

There have been casualties. Ciné Starz closed its location in Orleans in a rent dispute with its landlord. The location had been open since 2013. Melissa DiMarco, with Ciné Starz, said she was sad that the site had to close.

“Ciné Starz was in, you know, active negotiations to renew a lease, to be there for the community and thinking they were in good faith negotiations, and really that’s not what was happening.”

Ciné Starz is also changing its approach to movie screening and offering pre-shows to attract more viewers.

“So it’s keeping it local, keeping the community, and keeping it about entertainment so that all that entertainment that other people aren’t getting, the Ottawa citizens are going to get,” said DiMarco.

She said going to the cinema nowadays is about connectivity, community and a memorable experience.

“Whether you’re going to go see the big blockbuster or comedy just for you and your friends or you’re taking the kids out, it’s got to feel like you can smell the popcorn, be in that scene,” said DiMarco.

“Everything’s left behind you for that day.”

Nick Ouzas said that with all the changes cinemas implement internally, the biggest challenge is still to be resolved.

“It’d be great if costs could come down. You know, a lot of the cinemas have improved their facilities as well, right? Which helps, you know, like with the big comfy chairs and heated seats and things like that,” he said.

“But for us, it’s mainly getting a good supply of films again.”