Independent cinemas say they’re last in line for movies because of Cineplex


In April, All everywhere all at once starring Michelle Yeoh was released theatrically across the country. The film hit streaming services in May and was released on DVD and Blu-ray in July. On October 10, Vancouver’s independent Rio Theater was able to book the film for the first time.

Owner Corinne Lea says those wait times are getting longer.

Theaters like hers used to get such films within two or three weeks of their initial release, she says.

“Now it’s between six months and a year,” she told CBC News.

“It’s often streamed online. You can watch it on the plane, you can watch it everywhere else except our theater.”

Lea is among independent movie theater owners across the country who say they are the latest to acquire films. They say distributors are telling them they have to wait for the big chains – mostly Cineplex Entertainment – to finish their movies, which independent exhibitors say is taking longer than ever and hurting their business.

Rachel Fox, who handles reservations for the Rio, says distributors have told her that if a Cineplex anywhere in Vancouver is showing a movie, she can’t book it. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

“It happens quite often that we are not allowed to play a movie when that movie has already been posted online for rent,” said Wendy Huot, owner of the screening room in downtown Kingston, Ont.

Rachel Fox, who handles reservations for the Rio, says distributors told her that if a Cineplex anywhere in Vancouver is showing a movie, she can’t reserve it.

She says she asked about the movie Elvis after it became available to stream on have a strong desire to and they told me no. She says the theater is still unable to book Top Gun: Maverickreleased in May.

“Every Monday we have to send a distributor some kind of sheepish email asking if a movie has been cleared by Cineplex, that is, if the box office return was low enough over the weekend that something else makes it go away,” Fox said.

She says the theater will also pull movies if Cineplex is interested, often around Oscar season.

The financial pressures of the pandemic may have marked a shift in the way Cineplex approaches theatrical release, says Joseph Clark, assistant professor of filmmaking at Simon Fraser University.

The Rio Theater in Vancouver. Theaters that aren’t part of the nation’s biggest chains make up just 11% of the market, according to Cineplex. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Independent theaters “always had to wait for the big chain, Cineplex, to be done with big studio releases. But now they have to do it with kinds of big blockbuster festival films and so on that have always been distributed by independent distributors,” Clark said.

Cineplex said in a recent statement that it has focused on “partnerships with non-traditional studios” and is handling more “international product” – the kind of movies Clark would have traditionally played in independent theaters.

Cineplex also said its September box office earnings were 52% of those for the same month in 2019.

In Canada, Hollywood films tend to be distributed by their studio — Warner Bros. produces and manages Elvisfor example — while independent films are often outsourced to Canadian-based distributors.

Several of these distributors, including Warner, Mongrel Media of Toronto and Elevation Pictures – which manages All everywhere all at once in Canada — declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests.

Cineplex declined an interview request. In a statement, a spokesperson said, “Ultimately, it’s up to film distributors to decide where they release their films.”

Wendy Huot, owner of the screening room in Kingston, Ont., says her three-screen theater often can’t get movies even once they’re available online. (Submitted by Wendy Huot)

The company held 75% of the box office market share in 2019, according to a 2021 investor report, followed by Landmark Cinemas at 12% and Quebec chain Cinémas Guzzo at 2%. All other theaters combined totaled 11%.

Landmark CEO Bill Walker said in an email that his company is not asking for any limitations on where distributors show their movies.

A Canadian distributor executive is unaware of any pressure from Cineplex to stop films from being shown in other theaters.

“There was never – at least, that I never witnessed – anything that was Cineplex or anyone else trying to take advantage of their place in the market,” said John Bain, responsible for acquisitions and distributions at LevelFILM.

“Hey, but we live in the real world, and they have 75% of the theaters in Canada and you have to take that into account when making decisions.”

Bain says there are many reasons—proximity to other theaters, cost to the distributor—why a movie might play at only one theater in a given city. He admits that the increasingly short delay between the theatrical and streaming releases of a film adds to the challenges for independent cinemas.

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Independent theaters across Canada are reporting lower-than-expected turnouts, despite moviegoers returning to watch the latest releases. Small theaters blame big chains for forcing distributors to limit their selections and encroaching on niche art house films.

“The independent film economy is a little trickier in theaters these days to make money,” Bain said.

He says he is concerned about the health of independent cinemas in the country.

“There’s a lot less than before. They really underpin independent films and feature films,” he said. “It’s important to me that they are healthy, but in the end all stakeholders are also making decisions that maximize their profits, including distributors and cinemas.”

The Canadian Independent Exhibitors Network, an alliance of 79 independent cinemas, including the Rio, complain about everything this to the Competition Bureau in March 2020, alleging that Cineplex is too dominant in the market, in violation of the Competition Act.

The bureau would not confirm whether it is investigating, citing legal confidentiality obligations.

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The nature of Canadian competition law makes it difficult to say whether there could be a successful lawsuit, says Jennifer Quaid, associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law.

Determining whether a company has too much leverage in a market is a “contextual assessment,” she said.

“There’s no definition that says it’s X percent of the market.”

Quaid also says there aren’t many cases advancing on abuse of dominance and restrictive business practices, making it particularly difficult to speculate on this case.

The number of theaters that could show a film was limited by the number of prints that existed, each having an associated cost. The distribution process is now digital, but Huot says distributors haven’t changed their practices.

She says she is willing to pay the same rates for films as multiplexes and would like to know what needs to happen for the screening room to have access to new releases.

“We’re not a discount, second-run theater, we’re just second-run because we can’t be anything else,” she said.