OPEN LETTER FROM JEFF KNOLL

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How do you save your movie business?

Community and government support are still needed. One is critically missing.

BY JEFF KNOLL

Hi, Jeff Knoll here, CEO of Film.Ca Cinemas.

That’s the usual sign-on that proceeds another video of me promoting our community movie theatre, usually wearing a set of wings, a silly costume or performing with some of my loyal cast members, dancing with hats, balloons and streamers.

Today, the mood at Film.Ca Cinemas is not as light, and our outlook is not as rosy.

Like it has for everyone, the effects of COVID-19 have been stressful and upsetting (as well as 40 or more such adjectives.) For the cinema, the last two years have been an unrelenting test of our resolve and creativity. Hundreds of cinemas and theatres in North America have closed permanently during the pandemic, but thanks to our hard work and the support of our community, we’re still here.

It can be harder to see the light at the end of the tunnel, having lived through it with all of you for the last two years. Undoubtedly, this pandemic will end, and life will turn into a new normal. I am confident that we will come out of it more keenly aware of the fragility of our health care system and, with any luck, the future will see our governments take emergency preparedness more seriously to prepare for next time.

What may never be the same is the state of our small and medium business sectors, which have shouldered a disproportionate share of the misery. There have been non-stop constantly changing rules, mandated shutdowns, staffing shortages, supply chain hassles and big shifts in consumer expectations and habits. All of these have added to the challenges businesses were already facing pre-pandemic.

At Film.Ca, we faced COVID-19 challenges head-on with the support of loyal and supportive guests and our great and patient landlord – without both, the cinema would have been a sad COVID-19 casualty by now.

Like all small and medium enterprises (or SMEs), we have rolled with the punches, pivoted to new ideas trying to find new sources of revenue, and implemented public safety rules with a cheerful smile while repeating the mantra, “We are all in this together.”

We’ve always believed that better days were around the corner and that our government has our backs – even when they haven’t given SMEs enough support.

Back in summer 2021, if you are like us, it started to feel like that new “normal” was within reach. We were able to reopen the theatre after an eight-month closure and found a couple of new business pivots that we thought might shore up our business losses and debt. Most of all, we had the lucrative holiday movie season within our sights.

For us, the light at the end of the tunnel came from Christmas lights lighting the way to seeing our seats fill up and our popcorn poppers keep up with the likes of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Sing 2, West Side Story and other highly anticipated holiday films that brought hope the cinema industry for the first time in years.

Then, like a terrible and unwanted movie sequel, the Omicron variant came, along with a renewed panic that gripped the planet.

Do not get me wrong; I fully believe and understand the real risks that COVID-19 and its variants pose to all of us. At the same time, I am infinitely unhappy with the decisions and reactions that we have seen in the name of public health.

I understand the need to physically distance and reduce gathering sizes, limiting exposure to potentially infected persons. However, when the province announced its new measures in December that allowed restaurants to remain open with ten people at a table and hundreds of customers in the same room, cinemas had to ban eating and drinking on their premises. I knew that these measures were more about optics and less about science.

Since, according to Ontario’s science advisory table, we know that COVID-19 transmits when people breathe in air contaminated by droplets and small airborne particles. How is it less risky sitting unmasked with nine people eating in close proximity, yet a higher risk to sit and possibly eat in smaller groups in a cinema auditorium? Cinemas have:

  • Physical distancing from other parties
  • A room with very high ceilings
  • Significant (and recently upgraded) air circulation
  • All guests facing the back of someone’s head 

There’s a simple answer: the risk isn’t higher. The risk of contracting COVID-19 in cinemas is equal to restaurants, and in many cases, is significantly less.

In fact, throughout the pandemic, there have been no cases of COVID-19 from cinemas worldwide. A fall 2021 study conducted in Germany demonstrated that “regular cinema ventilation is enough to ensure that COVID-19 infection risk is minimal in a typical theatrical environment.” (You can read more results and findings from that study available online here.)

Cinema operators, especially independent ones, rely on the revenue from snacks and drinks to pay the bills. When the provincial government takes that away from us, it puts cinemas in financial jeopardy.

If you came to visit us during the opening week of Spider-Man in December, you would have seen hundreds of happy guests watching the latest blockbuster. I couldn’t possibly count the number of good wishes, congratulations and expressions of joy that all was well for Film.Ca and the cinemas. 

The truth is, we couldn’t share that joy.

You may not realize that for every $10 ticket sold to see Spider-Man at the theatre, $1.15 goes to the province and the federal government for HST, and of the remaining $8.85, we have to send 65% of the revenue (in this case, $5.31) back to the studio. That left us with only $3.34 to pay staff, rent, utilities, etc. The bottom line is that covering costs with just $3.34 is impossible.

After a disappointing but busy holiday season, the province mandated another shutdown on January 5th. You could, however, still shop and pack malls and stores at 50% capacity. You could buy an essential new TV or a new car, but you couldn’t see a movie in a cinema…again. That was a decision made without any scientific backing.

But all was not lost because the province promised us $10,000 and offered to pay our hydro and gas bills to help us cover the costs of this latest shutdown. This offer might be an effective lifeline for a 1,500 square foot coffee shop, but this is a cruel joke for a 24,000 square foot cinema. It comes nowhere close to covering our rent, let alone our large, pandemic-created debt and other expenses. And we still haven’t seen any part of that promised $10,000.

Today, along with restaurants and gyms, Film.Ca Cinemas is a few days away from reopening again on January 31st. But without sound reasoning, we’re opening without food and beverage sales until the next phase starting February 21st.

Frankly, the only reason it’s worth opening at all is to see our guests and to do what we love to do: entertaining our community, providing a safe space for respite from the stresses of the day and an outlet to escape for a few hours from the realities of the continuing pandemic.

Last fall, when people expressed their hope we would survive this, my answer was clear: of course, we will. Now, I’m less bullish on our future and the cinema industry. So many people have shifted to streaming movies online, coupled with studios turning their back on the exclusivity windows that theatres could always count on. It’s not clear if these trends will ever return to even a semblance of what they once were.

The theatre faces another month of losses with no food and beverage sales. The government that gives endless promises of support is high on benchmarks to qualify for help and low on offerings. Worse still, they have an unwarranted belief that token gestures are enough to help small and medium businesses survive. 

Furthermore, the province’s “one size fits all” approach doesn’t consider that not all businesses are alike. Doling out the same funds to all applicants isn’t the answer; a one-time grant that might be lifesaving to some businesses is almost pointless to others like ours.

We at Film.Ca Cinemas will fight to stay open with every good effort we have to carry on, but it will not be easy. It’s going to be indescribably difficult and will demand even more sacrifices on our part to stay open. The good news is Film.Ca has more than the capacity to make it through this. With your and the government’s help, we are determined to survive and thrive beyond this temporary episode no matter what.

This cinema is not just a business; it is a local institution. It is not just a job; it is our calling. Our customers are not just consumers of our services; they are our valued guests, friends and supporters who we love to serve and entertain. 

Thank you to everyone who has bought a seat in our “Buy a Seat” campaign (with 400 seats sold and counting!) and everyone who’s bought a gift card, bought take-out snacks, or enjoyed participating in our live online trivia nights.

We appreciate every cent of the financial support and have been touched by every note or spoken offering of moral support you have provided to us. You can still help by writing and calling your provincial and federal members of government, asking them to do more to support SMEs financially. You can also help by buying a seat, gift card, take-out and tickets for our reopening next week.

You have all helped steel our resolve to be here for you and our community. Please continue advocating for us to your friends and provincial representatives.

Above all, we can’t wait for you to come back and see a movie on the big screen.

We’ll see you at the movies.

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