Ottawa movie-lovers can breathe a sigh of relief: the new owners of the ByTowne Cinema are bona fide film geeks who plan to keep one of the city’s most cherished cultural institutions in business for the long haul.
Toronto-based business partners Daniel Demois and Andy Willick announced Wednesday they’ve finalized a deal to purchase the ByTowne from longtime owner Bruce White, who decided to retire late last year after a 32-year run.
But the new buyers say this definitely won’t be a case of absentee owners looking to overhaul the ByTowne’s business model. Indeed, they’ve admired White and his approach to running the Rideau Street repertory theatre for years, and when they heard he was looking to sell, they immediately expressed an interest in taking over the business.
“There’s not a lot of other cinemas, either chains or independents, that can play the quality of films and still get an audience that the ByTowne can,” says Demois, who plans to relocate to Ottawa to take a hands-on role in the theatre’s day-to-day operations.
“I understand the concern of reading two guys from Toronto (are buying it). But we’re not going to be managing this place from a distance. This is going to be my life.”
Demois and Willick have no lack of credibility when it comes to the business – they’ve owned and operated Toronto’s Fox Theatre since 2007 and purchased Kitchener’s Apollo Cinema seven years later.
Over the years, White became a valued source of advice and comradeship. So much so, in fact, the T.O. business partners even subscribed to his theatre’s monthly newsletter.
"We’re not going to be managing this place from a distance. This is going to be my life."
“We always knew what was going on at the ByTowne,” Demois says. “You always wanted to see what was happening there, because it was kind of the benchmark for all other independent cinemas.”
With familiar faces on both sides of the table, negotiations for the ByTowne proceeded smoothly.
“We talked back and forth for a while, and finally (the deal) just came together,” Demois explains.
“(White) sussed us out and found out what our intentions were. I think it was very important to him that he was leaving it with people that shared his same brand of enthusiasm. If we were people that were going to come in and just play Marvel movies all the time, I don’t think that it would have gone ahead.”
There’s no chance of that happening, Demois insists. He and Willick, chums since high school, are art film fanatics from way back.
“While other people were going to parties or going to smoke cigarettes at the ravine or whatever, we would go to repertory cinemas and the art houses and learn about old movies,” says Demois, who holds a bachelor of arts degree in film theory from York University. “That’s what excited us. It kind of opened our eyes to a different world.”
The new operators’ motto would seem to be, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Demois says the ByTowne will continue to feature a lineup chock full of art films, documentaries and Canadian content, along with just enough deviations from the tried-and-true script to keep things interesting.
Like singalong nights, for example, where the audience can belt out Prince’s hits while watching the cinematic version of Purple Rain. Or perhaps indulge their love of ’70s Swedish pop with a little Mamma Mia!
“People love Abba,” Demois says, laughing.
They’re also thinking of streaming films on the theatre’s website to give viewers at home a chance to see indie productions they otherwise would never be able to rent. Concerts and Q&As with filmmakers are other potential sources of content for the virtual platform.
“A lot of these independent films, maybe they don’t show up on a streaming service,” Demois says. “A lot of them are only available for the ByTowne’s run.”
In addition, the theatre is applying for a liquor licence so moviegoers can enjoy a craft brew or a glass of wine with the show.
“It gives us an opportunity not just to offer something different to our audience, but it’s a way to get involved with local businesses,” Demois says. “It’s going to be fun to do some tastings.”
Keeping the popcorn
The snack bar will be upgraded, “but we’re not getting rid of popcorn,” he quickly adds. “I’ve received like six emails saying, ‘Don’t change the popcorn.’”
Demois says they’re targeting a reopening date in early fall, assuming indoor venues are open with capacity limits that would make the 650-seat building financially viable by then.
But no matter when the curtain is once again raised at the ByTowne, the new operators say they expect audiences to return in droves.
“It’s a niche, and the people that like it, they love it,” Demois says. “It’s the same as independent bookstores or independent video stores. They still have their core (market). And the ByTowne certainly has that.”