By Jane Lytvynenko
At first glance, running an independent movie theatre might seem like a glamorous job. That is, until the toilet clogs.
Bruce White thought that owning Ottawa’s historic ByTowne Cinema would be like something out of a storybook when he bought it. He was one of the first to learn that it was on the market back in 1988 and coughed up the cash.
“I was young and I thought it was cool,” recalls White. “I fell into the trap of thinking, ‘How romantic is that?’ and got into it.”
White quickly learned that being owner of a challenging small business is much more than red carpets and world premieres. “I think it’s only been about a week since I had a plunger in my hand,” he admits.
Despite such harsh realities, White calls owning a theatre “the best job in the world,” a sentiment deeply shared by the owner of Ottawa’s Mayfair Theatre, Lee Demarbre. These two thriving indie film houses—the ByTowne and the Mayfair—are the pillars of alternative and underground movie culture in central Ottawa. A deliberately far cry from big-box complexes, the two venues have distinct vibes but share one critical motive: the desire to be different.
Big ugly brick building
He was already an established filmmaker in his own right when Demarbre stumbled upon and purchased the Mayfair five years ago. The previous owners could not sustain the business. He had quit his job at—where else?—the ByTowne a decade ago after the birth of his daughter, but the love for movie house culture inevitably brought Demarbre back.
“I didn’t give it much thought,” says Demarbre of his decision to buy the Mayfair. “When I was a kid I wanted my dad to quit the RCMP and become a projectionist at a movie theatre,” he explains.
When he grabbed the reins at the Mayfair, Demarbre’s immediate mission was to transform the inside of his “big ugly brick building” built in 1932. He made major changes to the programming and confections, doing away with double bills and investing in a new popcorn machine. Demarbre insists the Mayfair now has the best popcorn in town.
The theatre’s seats were next to be upgraded: “Everyone was leaving because the seats were so terrible,” recalls Demarbre. After travelling and experiencing scores of famous indie theatres beyond the ByTowne, he reproduced minor elements of many of them at the Mayfair, because “Ottawa deserved a cinema like this,” he says proudly.
Long before White arrived, the ByTowne was a community gathering place.
“It was a neighbourhood cinema at a time when every neighbourhood had a cinema,” says White.
The blast-from-the past atmosphere in the ByTowne is tied to the architecture: “You can tell in an instant that you’re not in a new facility,” White adds.
Indeed, a history dating back to 1946 is what gives the ByTowne its charm. When White took over, he found a large, red velvet curtain in a box backstage and immediately knew he wanted to resurrect it.
“It cost a bomb to dry-clean that thing,” he says, but White knew the importance of those kinds of details. “There are some aspects to this place that are undeniably retro-cool.”
Today, despite (or perhaps because of) significant changes to the mainstream movie industry, business at both the ByTowne and the Mayfair is booming. They’ve outlived big movie companies coming and going from other downtown spaces.
White says the recent closure of theatres at the nearby World Exchange Plaza hasn’t affected business, and unlike Demarbre he’s not worried about the big-box cinema planned to open at the revived Lansdowne Park. “What we do appeals to people who are not really satisfied by mainstream,” White explains.
When booking movies, for instance, White says he always looks for something that “goes deeper.” He feels that his audiences are educated and well-travelled people who don’t want to see the latest superhero flick.
Counting himself among that audience, White contends, “We want going to the movies to be fun and challenging, fun and thought-provoking, fun and conversation-starting. It’s got to be a little bit more than fun.”
It’s tricky for White to predict which movies will be hits or misses, but he actually values that aspect of the job. “If [movie selection] were a predictable science, all films that make money would be taken by the chain cinemas and we would be left with movies that attract no audiences,” White says. “Some surprises are good.”
White also denounces the recent mainstream trend that judges movies as successful only if they record a stellar opening weekend. This emphasis on instant impact means that young people (who generally want to keep up with their friends) are less likely to see a movie that they have never heard of.
“The world is not a very patient place anymore,” says White, who consoles himself with how an older generation more removed from peer pressures makes up the majority of visitors to the ByTowne.
Rocky Horror and shadowcasts
The Mayfair, on the other hand, draws in the college crowd. With regular screenings of cult favorites Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room, students and youth are a key audience segment at Demarbre’s theatre.
According to the owner, the Mayfair draws the second-largest audiences for Rocky Horror screenings of any theatre in North America. During these unique showings, audience members often dress up as their favorite character from the film and enthusiastically deliver key lines of dialogue right along with the actors.
There are also occasional “shadowcasts” during Rocky Horror screenings, when costumed actors assemble near the screen and mirror the action in real time.
Always committed to unusual event programming, the Mayfair also screens things such as the Oscars live broadcast, hosts a regular Super Secret Saturday Night Cinema, and organizes an annual sexy film festival for local auteurs. On some evenings the Mayfair has licensed alcohol events: “You don’t have to wait for Lansdowne to open to come drink at a movie theatre,” Demarbre points out.
Despite White’s nonchalance about Lansdowne, Demarbre’s theatre is located virtually across the street from the planned megaplex. He warns that it will “spell a lot of doom for the Mayfair.”
The new downtown cinema is expected to have a VIP section and state-of-the-art technology, which Demarbre denounces as “the worst.” He also decries the trend toward numerous small theatres where the viewers are packed in “like a bunch of sardines.” For him, bells and whistles do not make for good movies or movie theatres.
“They’re going to start serving shit on popcorn and tell you it tastes good,” Demarbre predicts. “For five years I have not once programmed a Michael Bay film and I’m going to go to the grave with that.”
The above photographs of the ByTowne Cinema and Mayfair Theatre by Mitchell Burton were part of his solo exhibition The Seats shown shown at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa in March of 2013 and featured online in Guerilla. In the series, Burton offers images of empty public viewing areas to present a subtle but telling analysis of how social forces shape, and are shaped by, institutions of art, religion, and entertainment.
Movies are worthless now
A commitment to screening local independent films also sets the Mayfair apart from major theatres—and Demarbre contends that screenings of independent movies at his theatre always do well.
“I hardly turn down anyone who wants to show their film here, unless they’re being a total dick about it,” Demarbre says.
On the flipside, Demarbre has noticed that films that are considered “classics” have been steadily losing value. Last time the Mayfair screened Scarface, for instance, the turnout was low. Demarbre blames it on the Internet, which makes movies very accessible.
“Movies are worthless now,” Demarbre insists, pointing to Netflix, Red Box, and DVDs being sold in dollar stores. “Students [the core Mayfair audience] have to bring back the worth and value of films.”
One way Demarbre will try to stay on top of trend is by eliminating the Mayfair’s printed program guide, which had a monthly circulation of 10,000 across the city. March will see the last guide distributed by the Mayfair; from now on scheduling will be available strictly online. Demarbre reasons that distributing a physical copy of the listings makes the booking of films less flexible and less responsive. If he’s able to show a new film, he wants to do it this week, not next month.
Lee Demarbre was all smiles at the opening of the Mayfair in December of 2009.
The ByTowne is sticking with its successful monthly program guide, but White’s philosophy leans toward promoting one movie at a time—something that can be quite a challenge because ByTowne features a lot of films. When a new movie is booked, White promotes through appropriate media to demographics he thinks might be interested. “It’s not always clear to me how the community connects to us,” says White, adding however that any outreach helps fosters a good relationship between cinema and potential audience.
For White, determining a successful screening is a much easier call. He feels that the best outcome is when people are arguing when leaving the theatre.
“I love when people don’t agree,” White says. “Movies should create debate.”
For Demarbre, meanwhile, good movies should create, well, more good movies. They should be inspiring enough to make him want to pick up a camera.
“A good kung fu makes me want to make a movie,” Demarbre says. “I get emotional when I go to movies, but I don’t get emotional by the drama that’s going on, I get emotional because it’s so well made.”
For both Demarbre and White, the particular rewards that come with offering something unique are worth sticking with an often-unrewarding business.
“What we play is different,” says White of programming at the ByTowne and the Mayfair, "but the reasons we play them are not.”