I have to start this letter by saying that my opinion is 100% biased since I run a local not-for-profit arts organization and only drink alcohol a handful of times per year, but it’s becoming very clear to me that the Province of British Columbia seems to favour alcohol over the arts.
This morning (March 3, 2021) the Kamloops Film Society received a call from Interior Health where they revoked the permission they had given us in early February to have small Private Bookings in the theatres for no more than six people – all from the same household.
Apparently, various jurisdictions from across B.C. were getting requests from movie theatres to do the same thing and there were also complaints, though we aren’t sure if these complaints were about us specifically or even what the complaints were.
Interior Health, it seems, got a slap on the wrist from the Ministry of Health – Province of B.C. who reiterated that movies at a theatre were seen as an “event” and thus had to be shut down. Interior Health should not have given us permission in the first place. Back to full shutdown we go.
The Paramount Theatre was closed from mid-March to September during the initial phases of the COVID-19 Pandemic. We survived by taking advantage of federal programs and by running a pilot drive-in with community partners.
We opened once a week in September, expanding to three days per week in October and November, as well as launching the private bookings. We increased cleaning protocols, added plexiglass, created safe pathways with decals, added safety signage, sectioned off seating for proper spacing, bought new safety equipment and supplies, and developed a COVID Safety Plan.
Many of our audience members remarked how safe they felt coming to the theatre. This shouldn’t be surprising as we were only allowed 50 people per screening so Theatre 1 (507 seats) was less than 10% “full” even with a sellout and Theatre 2 (270 seats) was less than 20% full.
For a small operation like ours, all of these extra steps amounted to huge costs. Though we have been able to offset some expenses with grants, the impact is still significant.
We were surviving. The federal funding, private rentals, our newly launched Membership Levels, and a small number of very appreciated donations were keeping us afloat. Then, at the end of November new orders shut us down even though retail stores, restaurants, pubs, and cafes remained open.
We cancelled almost 25 private bookings as well as our public programming in December and remained closed until February when we made our case to Interior Health: if a family can sit around a table at a restaurant where there are other people at other tables, why not alone in a theatre?
To their credit, Interior Health was logical, and gave us permission for small private bookings. At least we had something. That has now been taken away.
When I look into our two vast empty theatres, I cannot fathom a logical explanation for why groups can gather at pubs, restaurants, and even movie theatres (more on the Rio Theatre in Vancouver below), but cannot watch a film.
Six people from the same household can sit around a table, drink alcohol, share appies, have their masks off, and cheer for their favourite team, but those same six people can’t come into a 500-seat theatre and watch a film and eat popcorn because it is deemed an “event.”
I understand that we are dealing with an unprecedented pandemic and that going to the movies is not essential right now. But is socializing over drinks? Is eating at restaurants, where takeout is an option? Is standing in line for a coffee?
I don’t want to throw any businesses under the bus as everyone is trying their best to survive this pandemic and doing what they can, but having movie theatres in a different grouping than restaurants and pubs doesn’t make any logical sense.
For a small not-for-profit organization like ours, these decisions have huge consequences and could mean the difference between survival and closing permanently.
The Rio Theatre in Vancouver has cheekily rebranded into a Sports Bar. By their own admission they have done this to stay afloat, but also to show the hypocrisy of the situation. As long as people are coming to their venue to have drinks and watch the latest Canucks game, UFC, or the latest episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race or The Bachelor, all is well, but if people were coming in to see a new independent film or documentary, they would be breaking the rules.
The Rio has even received praise from Health Minister Adrian Dix for their innovation. Unfortunately, we don’t have a liquor license and based on our audience base, we don’t feel the demand would be there to make a Sports Bar viable. The Rio is pulling from a much bigger pool.
We just want the orders to be applied logically and fairly across sectors. Shutting down an industry that has no reported cases, but allowing higher risk ventures to keep going seems like a witch-hunt against the arts.
The issue doesn’t seem to be the space, as there is plenty of square footage in movie theatres-plus The Rio example; it doesn’t seem to be the risks, as I am not yet aware of any COVID-19 cases linked to a movie theatre anywhere in the world; and it doesn’t seem to be not following protocols, as movie, and even live, theatres have gone above and beyond to make their venues safe.
The issue seems to be that letting people get drunk at the local watering hole is seen as more important in B.C. than the arts. In my estimation, that is a real shame.
Executive Director, Kamloops Film Society