Supporting independent cinemas during the pandemic: there’s nothing like the in-person, movie-viewing experience

Over the course of 2020, many small businesses in Kitchener-Waterloo were forced to close due to the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. After a year of opening and closing fluctuations as waves of the pandemic rose and subsided, businesses in the region have been allowed to re-open to the public with enhanced safety procedures. 

Due to the many requirements of each stage of Ontario’s reopening process, one of the industries most affected by reopening fluctuations was film and entertainment. This is highlighted in Kitchener-Waterloo by two well-loved independent cinemas – Apollo Cinema in Kitchener and Princess Cinemas in Waterloo. 

For most businesses, safely reopening to the public included procedures such as mask-wearing and caps on the number of patrons allowed in the space depending on the size of the building. However, cinemas also had the added stress of maintaining adequate space between patrons in each theatre. For larger cineplexes, this was a far more simple process. For smaller independent cinemas, this is a more in-depth process. 

Speaking with Joel Brubacher, general manager at Princess Cinemas, a key issue voiced was the struggle of assuring their audience that their cinema was safe after the near-continuous isolation that the community faced: “The biggest challenge is convincing people that it’s safe to come see movies, honestly,” Brubacher said. Cara Watson, general manager and director of operations at Apollo Cinema expressed similar challenges while illustrating to prospective audiences that the cinema allows for effective spacing and seat buffer placement.

Similarly, both Brubacher and Watson noted how essential their respective cinemas are to the Kitchener-Waterloo community and the many cultural losses experienced during their time closed. While many businesses were permitted to open during Step 2 of Ontario’s reopening plan, indoor cinemas were barred from opening until Step 3. 

While Princess Cinemas had an online streaming platform available to use during the cinema’s time closed, Brubacher stated that it wasn’t profitable for the cinema and that regulars would rather come to see a movie in person: “Even if it was available online, they would come. They’d come out and watch it in person”.

Watson echoed this sentiment, noting the unique experience cinemas provide to an audience: “There’s never going to be anything quite like watching a film with a group of people at the same time and experiencing something together.”

There’s never going to be anything quite like watching a film with a group of people at the same time and experiencing something together.

Cara Watson

However, the sense of community created by both Princess Cinemas and Apollo Cinema has sustained both businesses. Due to this, both cinemas hold a special place in the region’s cultural consciousness that surpasses the ‘grip’ multiplexes often hold on the film industry. Both being accessible through public transit and by foot has assisted them in becoming crucial meeting spots for the community.

When reflecting on the Apollo’s role in the community, Watson remarked on the special role independent cinemas hold in comparison to multiplexes: “If you come to a film at an independent cinema you’re not just supporting the film industry and the entertainment industry but you’re also supporting your community”. 

Cara Watson, general manager and director of operations at Apollo Cinema, touches on her experience of watching films by herself for a year in the teaser trailer for the “Business Unusual” series.

In addition, Brubacher noted the unique position independent cinemas have to show films that are often missed by mainstream cinemas that play guaranteed ‘hits’ such as Marvel films: “[There are] a lot of movies that are just kind of culturally aware and I feel like people come out to kind of expand their horizons”. 

Both Apollo Cinema and Princess Cinemas are also easily accessible to members of the community through public transportation and by foot. Apollo Cinema is located on 45 Duke Street West in Kitchener while the Princess Twin can be found at 46 King Street North in Waterloo. The Original Princess Cinema is located at 6 Princess Street West in Waterloo. 

Being located in the center of each city, both cinemas are committed contributors to the community: “You can go have dinner on the block and then just walk over to the cinema and check out a movie,” Brubacher said, detailing the appeal that Princess Cinemas has by being located in Uptown Waterloo. 

“We do something to incorporate other businesses and other small independent businesses,” Watson states, describing how Apollo Cinema assists in enriching Kitchener’s cultural landscape.  “It feels like there’s a real community around our cinema and you can really feel that there [are] regulars that come out every week and we just have a real community around it,” Brubacher added, and noted the sense of community present in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. 

As the region reopens, supporting independent cinema is crucial to maintaining what Kitchener-Waterloo is known for being – a culturally rich and artistic community. “It just feels like it’s more of a rich experience when you’re uptown rather than at a mall in a parking lot,” Brubacher noted.

Both Watson and Brubacher remain optimistic about the future of independent cinema in the region, Watson asking that audiences take the time to wait for smaller cinemas to show the larger films they really wish to see before going to a multiplex. 

After all, as Brubacher noted, the community in the region has provided immense support: “Being closed for almost a year and having all the support from all of our community is really cool. It says a lot about the culture around cinema.”

Being closed for almost a year and having all the support from all of our community is really cool. It says a lot about the culture around cinema.

Joel Brubacher

Both Apollo Cinema and Princess Cinemas have begun operations once more, Princess Cinemas hosting their Bicycle Film Festival – the first festival held by the cinema since its reopening. 

Apollo Cinema has upcoming partnerships with other local businesses while preparing for their showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey in September. “The best idea really is to watch our social media because we try to work with as many people as possible for fun events,” Watson stated. This process of collaborating with local artists in the community extended into Apollo’s summer programming, which included showings of Stories of Landback in collaboration with the Landback Camp in Waterloo Region. 

 “If you just keep an eye on our Instagram feed then you’ll definitely find something that is there for you,” Watson concluded.  

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