ByTowne Cinema to end 32-year run on Rideau Street on Dec. 31

ByTowne Cinema
After 32 years in business, the ByTowne Cinema will close the curtain for the final time on Dec. 31. (Google Maps image)

There will be no Hollywood ending to Bruce White’s valiant effort to keep a cherished Ottawa institution alive.

The owner of the ByTowne Cinema announced Friday he’s closing the curtain on the historic repertory theatre for good on Dec. 31, citing plummeting ticket sales during the COVID-19 crisis as a major factor in his decision.

“The cinema has been losing money every day since the pandemic hit,” he wrote in an email to members. “Even when we've been allowed to be open, audiences are dramatically smaller. 

“The ByTowne has a fantastic customer base, but many ByTowners just aren't coming these days. And I don't blame them: our staff have done an amazing job with COVID protocols that keep customers as safe as possible, but everyone's risk assessment is personal, and specific to their circumstances. Many just don't want to make a non-essential trip to a cinema.”

In addition, White explained that he’s “running out of movies” to show as distributors are releasing fewer films to limited-run theatres in favour of selling titles to streaming services instead. 

“Normal film distribution, normal cinema operations, and normal moviegoing are all waiting for a widely available coronavirus vaccine,” he wrote. “And that, realistically, is many months away.”

After more than 30 years in the business, White also said it’s time to think about retirement.

“It's still possible that someone will want to take over the ByTowne business and offer independent cinema to the ByTowne's wonderful fan base,” he added. “But it's a scenario that's unlikely until we get out of the eye of the pandemic storm.”

The news that the venerable cinema was closing its doors hit particularly close to home for Jean Cloutier.

The Alta Vista Ward councillor’s connection to the ByTowne goes back 45 years, when he started working at its predecessor, the Towne Cinema on Beechwood Avenue, as an usher. After working his way up to manager, Cloutier purchased the theatre in 1983 and brought White on board as a partner. In 1988, they moved the business to its current location on Rideau Street and renamed it the ByTowne. 

'Big changes' coming to cities

Though Cloutier sold his stake in the cinema to White in 1990, his attachment to the ByTowne remains strong three decades later. He summed up his feelings Friday in one word: “Sadness.”

“Cities like Ottawa, we’re faced with big changes in the coming years as we try to stabilize things as we emerge from the pandemic. This is an example of that,” he told OBJ.

Cloutier praised his former business partner, saying White did “an outstanding job” of offering “alternative, distinctive films to what is sometimes a very narrow audience.” He fondly cited midnight screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show among the many cinematic memories he made at the ByTowne that remain etched in his mind.

In his note to members, White said he still holds out hope that another operator might step up to keep the tradition alive. In the meantime, he’s set up an appreciation fund for the ByTowne’s 15 employees and is urging anyone who has the means to consider making a donation.

ByTowne 2.0?

“If there's eventual interest from someone, you may see ByTowne 2.0 someday,” he wrote. “No one will be more delighted than me.”

Cloutier echoed those thoughts, saying venues like the ByTowne form an indelible part of the fabric of the community. 

“There are important stories to be told, and it’s important for residents of Ottawa to have the opportunity to see those stories,” he said. “Ottawa will be poorer for losing it.”