The decline of one-screen cinemas in Vancouver

Under the threat of terrorist attacks on American theatres, Sony Pictures released The Interview through online platforms such as Youtube, Google Play and Xbox Video, and only showed the film in select theatres across the world. While The Interview is not the only film to be released primarily online, the media coverage following the hacking of Sony Pictures and the success of the comedy -- having made $31 million online since its release, according to CNN -- shines a new light on the decline of the traditional cinematic experience. In Vancouver, the decline in cinema screenings of films has left the city almost bare of its smaller-sized cinemas.

“By the time we get to the year 2000, we see the beginning of the demise of one-screen cinemas in Vancouver,” said Brian McIlroy of the film studies department. “If you went from UBC 15 years ago, you could have walked down [to] the West 10th [Street] and the Varsity Cinema and you could have seen a film ... further to the Hollywood Theatre in Kitsilano and watched a movie there, you could have walked on a little bit more or taken the bus to the Ridge Theatre in Arbutus and watched a movie there. And all those cinemas are closed.”

Facing the competition of free, illegal streaming or downloading, cinemas changed from small and specialized theatres to larger commercial theatres, Cineplex appearing as a leader and model in present-day Vancouver.

The population of avid movie-goers is shrinking as cinemas close their doors to lesser-known international and independent movies that are not deemed safe bets of a $13 entertainment investment. “You might have the 5th Avenue and Burrard cinemas [showing independent movies]. Normally one or two of those screens are dedicated at least to challenging material,” said McIlroy, “The Tinseltown [Odeon International Village] as well ... because it has so many screens, they can risk with some films.”

“If you only have three or four screens, or one screen, like the Dunbar theatre, you have to take the blockbuster, because you have to fill those seats.”

That said, an alternative independent culture still lives through film festivals and arts exhibition spaces. “Usually in a medium-sized city there is one venue which is dedicated to non-mainstream activity.” Here in Vancouver, the Cinematheque fills this role, but going downtown to see a movie might seem too far for UBC students.

Vancouver thus sees two distinct groups further divide. Some go see the blockbusters while aficionados stick to more artistic, often less visual movies.

Michael Johnston and James Mackin are both students involved in the UBC Film Society, which runs the Norm theatre on campus. Johnston saw the near eradication of independent theatre step into reality as the Toronto cinema he worked for almost closed its doors. “The independent theatres could not keep up. Our [digital] projector [at the Norm] is $100,000.... It is a major investment,” said Johnston, one that specialized theatres cannot keep up with.

“Foreign films are probably the ones that are hurt the most,” said Mackin. “Any film that is nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award would be almost impossible to see here ... I have seen maybe one or two foreign films that have been nominated in the last four years that I have been here”

As The Wolf of Wall Street became the first major movie to be entirely sold in digital copies, old projectors that use film came one step closer to being obsolete and with them the struggling cinemas of Vancouver and elsewhere. With every theatre closing, UBC students have yet another step to take if they want to keep up with some of the most brilliant but also most discrete productions. Gone might be the days when sitting in a big red armchair with a box of popcorn was part of a normal Saturday.