In Ottawa, the Mayfair Theatre and the ByTowne Cinema have co-existed in the market for decades. But in the aftermath of the pandemic and with changes in the industry, can it continue?
Already an Insider? Log in
- Critical Ottawa business news and analysis updated daily.
- Immediate access to all Insider-only content on our website.
- 4 issues per year of the Ottawa Business Journal magazine.
- Special bonus issues like the Ottawa Book of Lists.
- Discounted registration for OBJ’s in-person events.
The pandemic was tough on the movie business, whether multi-screen cinemas or single-screen repertory theatres. In Ottawa, the Mayfair Theatre on Bank Street and the ByTowne Cinema on Rideau Street have co-existed in the market for decades. But in the aftermath of the pandemic and with changes in the industry, it’s not clear whether there’s room for both repertory theatres in the city. The Mayfair’s Lee Demarbre once worked at the ByTowne and still regularly sees films there. He says that, up until 2019 and the pandemic, he thought there was enough room in the Ottawa market for both the Mayfair and Bytowne; he didn't view them as directly competing against each other. “I don't know if that's true anymore,” Demarbre told OBJ recently, adding that the Mayfair has bounced back from the pandemic very well. Daniel Demois, co-owner of the ByTowne Cinema, is more optimistic that the two repertory theatres can both thrive in the future. “I think Ottawa is certainly a large enough town for two independent cinemas, who each cater to their own audiences and have for decades,” Demois said. “The industry is always changing and we all need to adapt and pivot, work to renew our audiences and attract new viewers. But that would be the case regardless of the number of cinemas.” Demois says the real challenge is not so much competition between the two theatres, but fair access to quality films. Independent repertory theatres are facing new challenges since the pandemic in getting access to films from streaming services such as Netflix and also must contend with movie-booking policies that give exclusive territorial rights to films that often favour first-run multiplexes. “I’m certainly optimistic about the future of the ByTowne,” he added. “While we aren’t quite where we were pre-2019 yet, we have seen the numbers increasing since summer 2022. “As long as there are new movies to be screened, I feel pretty strongly that there will be an audience that still enjoys viewing those titles at their local independent cinema.” Demois and Willick were the saviours of the ByTowne Cinema after previous owner-operator Bruce White announced he was retiring and that the cinema was going to close at the end of 2020. Demois says it was the ByTowne’s reputation among independent movie theatre operators that caused him and Willick to want to preserve the cinema. “The ByTowne close? We weren't going to let that happen. It's too important a cinema in Canada,” Demois said. “These independent cinemas are our niche,” he continued. “We’ve always felt confident that that audience will be there. There’s always going to be people that want to go to a big screen and see a movie with an audience. “A comparison I always make is it's like bookstores; there are always going to be people who want to read actual books and want to browse through bookstores,” he added. “As long as there are films, there will be people who want to see them in a theatre with a large screen and a good sound system.” Whether at the ByTowne or the Mayfair, the owners agree that what they are selling to an audience, other than quality films, is a communal experience that can’t be replicated at home no matter how large the TV or how many friends are invited over to watch. “Films are meant to be seen with other people; it is part of what makes watching a film enjoyable. The reaction to a scene creates a shared experience and you remember how you felt within an audience,” said Josh Stafford, co-owner of the Mayfair. To attract more business, both theatres have been featuring special events. The Mayfair has held silent movie nights, complete with musicians to provide the soundtrack, in an effort to recreate the atmosphere of the very beginnings of cinema. The ByTowne has been offering films to attract a younger audience and expand its customer base. While the efforts have been successful, there are ongoing challenges being faced by all repertory theatres, according to an industry association. A national organization of independent cinemas in Canada, the Network of Independent Canadian Exhibitors (NICE), was launched in 2018 to act as a business support group. The Bytowne’s Willick is part of that organization as chair of the board of directors. “It’s been a difficult couple of years for film exhibitors; it’s been financially and emotionally taxing,” Willick said. “The selection of films we’ve been able to share with our audiences has dropped considerably since the pandemic.” His partner Demois agrees. “As opposed to (worrying about) a fellow indie cinema, I’m more concerned with how multiplexes can affect our access to films, which is why as members of NICE we are working on getting fair access to films for all independent cinemas,” Demois said.