Thinking Pink: movies like ‘Barbie’ could be a saving grace for this independent theatre

Arnprior theatre Barbie

In the wake of the pandemic and with his business’s loan repayment deadlines looming, Kevin Marshall is relying on a boost from a new friend – and her name is Barbie.

As the owner and operator of O’Brien Theatre in Arnprior since 1999, Marshall has seen the independent cinema through decades of ups and downs, from renovating and installing a second movie screen in the building to the rise of VIP seating and recliners in big-name Ottawa theatres.

But nothing compared to the challenges thrown his way during the pandemic.

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“Bums in actual seats have been on a steady decline in the industry in general for years. But COVID knocked the wind out of everything,” Marshall said. “They weren’t making movies, so even if we were open, we had nothing to play. And it drove people to streaming. If they were on the fence about Netflix or Prime or any of those, they went for it during the pandemic.” 

To keep the lights on, Marshall took advantage of the Canada Emergency Business Account loans offered during the pandemic. But O’Brien Theatre has still not made a full recovery, and Marshall says repaying the loans will be a “real challenge.”

“I needed the money at the time, and I used it to keep the doors open and keep the bills paid,” he explained. “I was at a point where I couldn’t get any more credit and would go bankrupt if I didn’t get that loan.

“If it weren’t for (the loan), we wouldn’t be here, so I don’t want to complain too much. I’m glad I had it, but paying it back sucks,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a double-edged sword.”

But in what might seem like a dire situation, an unlikely hero has appeared in the form of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, a star-studded film that has been generating international hype.

O’Brien Theatre is located far enough from major competitors in Ottawa that – unlike independent cinemas located within the city’s boundaries – it is permitted to screen the same movies as chains such as Landmark and Cineplex, Marshall said.

And Marshall’s decision to bring Barbie to his small-town cinema has been “fantastic” for the theatre, he said, with ticket sales eclipsing any other film shown this year.

Arnprior Barbie theatre
O’Brien Theatre at 147 John St. North in Arnprior is into its second week screening Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie”.

“It’s been our biggest single movie of this year. It’s surpassed Super Mario Bros. and other big tentpole movies,” Marshall explained. “Barbie was a surprise.”

O’Brien Theatre had received a lot of interest from viewers about Barbie, Marshall said, but he didn’t know who the target audience was. Family-friendly films tend to do best at his cinema, he explained, so he wasn’t sure how it would be received.

“We knew it would be big … But we’ve seen lots of families, and even lots of seniors, all dressed in pink from top to bottom,” he said, laughing. “It’s been just fantastic for us.”

“We’re continuing into our second week of Barbie and have made more in our second week than Mission Impossible did in two weeks,” Marshall continued. “Even in a second week, already it’s done better than any other movie this year. It’s just phenomenal.”

Many audience members have also been repeat viewers, Marshall said, which the theatre relies on due to the small population in Arnprior.

“They see it, then they bring their husbands, bring their kids, bring their grandkids,” he said. “It was like showing Titanic when people had seen it 37 times … In a small town, you need that repeat business.”

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer shared a release date with Barbie and has finished in second place for ticket sales. Cineplex says it saw its highest July box office of all time as Barbie and Oppenheimer sent droves to theatres last month in what has been dubbed the “Barbenheimer” boom.

“Barbenheimer” has proven to be not a one-weekend phenomenon but an ongoing box-office bonanza. The two movies combined have already surpassed $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales. 

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for data firm Comscore, called it “a touchstone moment for movies, moviegoers and movie theatres.”

But even with all the Oppenheimer buzz, Marshall said he prioritized Barbie.

“It came down to what I felt personally was going to do well, and we do very, very well with family movies. Oppenheimer is a great film, but you’re not bringing your four-year-old to it,” he said. 

“If I’d had the other screen free, I’d have run it at the same time, but it just happened with the flow that I couldn’t … It’s a Tetris game. But I’m definitely bringing it in.”

But even with the record ticket sales that Barbie has sparked for O’Brien Theatre, Marshall said the business will need a lot more movies like it to truly regain its financial footing.Barbie theatre Arnprior

The cinema boasts two movie screens, seating 292 in the main-floor theatre and 140 upstairs. 

“These days,” Marshall said, “the theatres are usually about 25 per cent full. And although Barbie is very popular, on the busiest night, the theatres were only half full. 

“Unfortunately, I’m absolutely relying on Barbie and movies like it,” he added. “Smaller productions no longer pay the bills.

“The amount of people who come in for big movies, this year… They barely cover the costs. Something like Barbie is actually just getting us through.”

June and July are the biggest months in his business, followed by December, Marshall explained, and he has to rely on making enough money in those months to keep the theatre afloat through the rest of the year.

O'Brien theatre Arnprior
The O’Brien Theatre in Arnprior first opened in 1908, and the existing building dates back to 1920. It was purchased by the O’Brien Entertainment Group, which also owns a theatre in Renfrew, in 1928.

“In September, the gross earnings don’t even cover the basic costs,” he said. “We need these huge movies to pay the bills.”

An ongoing strike in Hollywood is also going to pose major concerns for the movie industry, Marshall said, and while the consequences might not be immediate, the cinema will see the effects in the coming years

Talks between Hollywood screenwriters and their employers collapsed on May 1, and the first of the two strikes that have frozen production in Hollywood began a day later. Hollywood actors have been on strike since July 14.

“With this strike, it’s not impacting us now, but it will next year,” Marshall explained. “The next Spiderman movie was going to be huge, and now it’s just gone and production has stopped. We anticipate these movies, thinking they’ll be big, and now we don’t know.

“For businesses like mine that have not recovered, even with Barbie, I won’t be close to my 2019 numbers.”

In the meantime, as he grapples with the quickly approaching CEBA loan repayment deadline and the effects of the strike, Marshall said he isn’t taking Barbie off the O’Brien screen anytime soon. It will be accompanied by Oppenheimer shortly. 

But in a declining industry, moviegoers and film enthusiasts are more important than ever in keeping theatres like the O’Brien open.

“In comparison to 15 years ago, when I would have been sold out for every evening and every matinee during the weekend, for Barbie I’m just barely half full,” he said. “It’s better than anything in the last five years. But in relation to 15 or 20 years ago, the numbers are still just not there.”

– with files from the Canadian Press

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