Canadian film distributors pivoting once again amid mandated theatre closures

Scarborough, See For Me among homegrown projects changing theatrical release plans as COVID-19 measures force cinema shutdowns.

A s Canadian exhibitors grapple with more mandated theatre closures from a new batch of COVID-19 restrictions in various provinces, distributors are once again pivoting to figure out when and how to release their homegrown projects.

On Monday, as Ontario announced cinemas would be among the venues to have to close under new measures meant to curb the spread of the Omicron variant, the twitter accounts for the Compy Films-produced Canadian drama Scarborough and co-director and producer Shasha Nakhai said the shutdown threw the film’s Jan. 28 theatrical release plan through levelFILM into question.

“We’ll be fine. It’s been the name of the game shooting, editing, completing post, and premiering in a pandemic. So many are dealing with so much worse right now,” Nakhai tweeted.

The fates of several other titles from Toronto distributor levelFILM are also changing, including the Randall Okita-directed Canadian thriller See For Me (Wildling Pictures), which has had its theatrical release cancelled but will have a VOD/digital release on Jan. 11. A press release says the Jan. 21 theatrical release for the Stephanie Joline-directed Canadian drama Night Blooms (Shut up & Colour Pictures) is likely cancelled but plans for it are to be determined.

The cinema closures hit exhibitors hard, with several announcing temporary layoffs this week. Many industry watchers and movie lovers have taken to social media to criticize the closures, noting they seem arbitrary and unfair given some big Ontario retail venues including malls are still allowed to operate at 50% capacity.

David Hudakoc, managing partner of levelFILM, tells Playback Daily it’s too soon to understand the long-term implications another lockdown will have on the Canadian film industry, which will be competing for screens with U.S. blockbusters — including the upcoming Warner Bros. tentpole The Batman – once cinemas reopen.

“In the short term it has forced us all to adapt, change and shift business models on a film by film basis to bring our Canadian films to audiences, which has been no easy task,” Hudakoc says in a statement. “Every company and every institution must do the same when making cultural and financial decisions.”

Hudakoc says in the short window of recovery when movie theatres began opening back up after initial pandemic lockdowns, the box office was dominated by a select few studio films.

“But it is, and always has been, impossible to define what is a theatrical film — audiences truly decide,” he adds. “From the data we’ve seen, what has shifted during the pandemic is just who the theatrical audience is. Right now, it’s younger, and skewed to the blockbusters. But what that means for Canadian films long term is dependent on how the theatrical-going audience shifts in the recovery.”

Elevation Pictures co-president Laurie May tells Playback as theatres reopen, the Toronto-based production and distribution company hopes its theatrical partners will continue to support Canadian theatrical releases as they did after the last closure.

“We were thrilled that our film Night Raiders broke records to have the widest opening for a Canadian Indigenous filmmaker,” May says in a statement. “Telefilm, the government, and exhibition all continue to recognize that Canadian film is an important part of our cultural identity which in turn supports the entire production and distribution industries.”

Vincenzo Guzzo, president and CEO of Cinémas Guzzo in Quebec, says Canadian films also suffer when theatres are ordered to operate at 50% capacity because exhibitors have to make up revenue and secure audiences by playing U.S. blockbusters on more screens. That’s what he did with Spider-Man: No Way Home when the province instituted 50% capacity limits a few weeks ago before ordering full closures on Dec. 20.

“But on a positive note, from U.S. Thanksgiving weekend until the weekend of Spider-Man opening, there was clear-cut evidence that people want to go back to the movies,” he says, noting his box-office numbers were higher in the weeks leading up to this past Dec. 20 versus the same time in 2019.

“It’s illusionary to believe that movie theatres will disappear because of a lack of interest from the general public. I think, in fact, a lot of people are going to reanalyze how many streaming platforms they subscribe to in the next few months, because they’re going to realize, ‘I’ve got like, 10 of these things — Crave, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple, this, that.’ It’s very costly and the information may not be what they want. Nobody wants to stay home.”

Says Hudakoc: “There will always be an audience for Canadian film, but whether it is in theatre or on a streamer depends on the film.”

“With a greater number of studios shifting their windows to shorter theatrical runs, we believe this will bring opportunity for Canadian films long term,” he continues. “Our job is to continue to find the stories that will resonate and bring them to audiences. How and where that happens will depend on who the film is for, and that notion should be applied through the entire Canadian ecosystem as it shifts to recovery and a whole new chapter for film in this country.”