It takes a beating and keeps on screening: How Ottawa’s Mayfair Theatre has survived multiple potentially fatal blows

mayfair theatre
The Mayfair Theatre on Bank Street was built in 1932 and declared a an official heritage building by the City of Ottawa in 2008.

As independent cinema owners across the country sound the alarm over threats to their industry and survival, Ottawa’s oldest independent theatre is “still hanging in there.”

The Mayfair Theatre on Bank Street opened its doors in 1932. Co-owner Josh Stafford said running an independent cinema is a tricky business, especially as economic pressures and evolving technology continue to threaten the few remaining theatres.

“It’s a long-standing joke that running an independent cinema is not something that will make you a millionaire,” laughed Stafford. “It’s a ‘doing it for the love of the game’ kind of business.”

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During the pandemic, which shuttered theatres everywhere, the Mayfair offered private showings, screenings and events, while also selling name plaques for seats. Its patrons came through in spades.

“I thought we’d sell a dozen, but we sold every single seat. I was getting emails saying, ‘Now I live in Nunavut’ or ‘I live in Australia now, but the Mayfair is still important to us,’” said Stafford. “I’m a cryer and I was definitely crying being on the receiving end of those emails. That’s why we’re still here.

“Disastrous things have happened that the Mayfair got through, a lot of pop culture… They thought the arrival of television would kill us, then streaming, then the pandemic,” he continued. “I don’t make light of what everyone else is going through, but we’re happy about hanging in there and being the rarities, as sad as that is, in Canada.”

The Mayfair usually operates “at a stage of just breaking even,” said Stafford, and the current landscape of independent cinema in Canada isn’t helping.

A new study from Canada’s independent cinema owners says their industry is “in crisis” and many theatres need increased public funding to stay afloat.

The research from the Network of Independent Canadian Exhibitors (NICE) released Tuesday said 60 per cent of independent cinema operators surveyed between December and February operated at a loss at the end of their most recent fiscal year.

About two-thirds of the 67 respondents reported that they need increased public funding in order to remain operational. The bulk estimated they would need about $50,000 in extra funding annually for three years to close the immediate gaps they face.

“We’re always tiptoeing around it, and of course there are always days where only 10 people come to the movies,” said Stafford. 

Sonya William, a director at NICE, said the research paints a picture of a “really stark” fiscal landscape, which stands to worsen if policy changes aren’t made and funding doesn’t pick up.

“We think it’s a really important time for us to raise the alarm and to say please pay attention to what’s happening with film exhibition in this country,” she said. 

NICE’s research comes as the industry is recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, which temporarily closed theatres in many regions, and as a succession of arts organizations in Canada have lamented a lack of funding and a struggle to survive.

To resolve such issues, NICE is pushing for the elimination of “clean runs,” which occur when studios demand two-, three- or four-week runs for films. During a clean run, an independent theatre can only show one film during every showtime and, as part of the practice, NICE said studios will deny any request to spare a single screen for other movies.

“If it’s a single-screen cinema in a small community … it’s really hard for a cinema to sustain a film for that long,” William said.

Some 81 per cent of survey respondents reported being impacted by clean runs and almost the same amount said it weighs on the fare they program. Sixty-two per cent said it would be “paradigm shifting” or “very much” impactful, if the practice ended.

NICE is also calling for the elimination of zone provisions, which keep exhibitors from playing films when another nearby is still screening the movie. 

NICE’s research revealed 53 per cent of its respondents routinely have to wait for Cineplex, the country’s largest cinema chain, to stop showing a film in their zone until they can screen the same movie.

The ramifications of zones were on display over the summer, when hit films Barbie and Oppenheimer drove massive audiences to theatres, breaking several audience and box office records.

O’Brien Theatre in Arnprior saw massive success from Barbie, owner and operator Kevin Marshall told OBJ in August.

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.

And Marshall’s decision to bring Barbie to his small-town cinema was “fantastic” for the theatre, he said, with ticket sales eclipsing any other film shown that year. The sales from movies like Barbie have managed to sustain O’Brien Theatre, which has been in business since 1908.

However, unlike O’Brien Theatre, the Mayfair is only a few blocks from the Cineplex VIP Cinemas at Lansdowne, so the independent theatre is banned from screening mainstream films until Cineplex has finished streaming them. 

“If the new Stephen King book comes out, you can get it on, at Walmart or at the ma-and-pa bookstore down the block. It’s everywhere because it’s a mainstream author,” said Stafford at the Mayfair. “But when it comes to movies, we play a bit of everything, new films, independents films, classics, but when a Star Wars movie comes, we can’t get it until much later (than Cineplex).”

The saving grace for the Mayfair, though, is its loyal patrons, explained Stafford. Many local viewers ask the theatre when it will receive a mainstream, sought-after film such as the Oscar-winning The Boy and the Heron and wait to see it at the Mayfair, he said, rather than go to the larger chain theatres.

“We have a multiplex within walking distance of us and smarter business people than us said, ‘You’re dead,’ and we’re still here,” said Stafford. “And it’s because of our loyal patron base.

“I really don’t want to sound snobbish, but it’s like saying a high-end restaurant can’t exist between a McDonald’s.”

– with files from The Canadian Press

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