Saying goodbye to the Ridge Theatre
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The changing theatre landscape shows how things can go sideways when we don’t plan for their success. We have no theatres on Granville, Schein argues, because of business decisions made elsewhere. Accidents of circumstance are partly to blame, he explains. Famous Players developed what’s now the Scotiabank Theatre, with the increasingly essential stadium seating, on Burrard Street as a replacement for Granville Street’s Capitol 6. “There was a perception in Toronto that people didn’t feel comfortable on Granville.”
Cineplex didn’t have the money to upgrade the Granville 7 when it needed to do that, and when a better-financed Cineplex acquired the more modern Scotiabank multiplex, Granville 7 became the doomed laggard that the company sold to satisfy the federal competition watchdog. It closed in November, and Toronto-based Cineplex, which also acquired the International Village multiplex, now dominates Lower Mainland movie exhibition. “Competitive zone” guidelines created by the distributors and exhibitors would prevent any new operator at the Granville 7 site from getting lucrative new releases.
Schein also believes it matters to have local movie-exhibition ownership. “A local operator started a film festival here,” he says, looking up at the Ridge lobby mural of a scene from Gone With the Wind. Local operators are more flexible employers and more attentive to customer needs. “They’re in the community, so they are more responsive to the community.”
Alan Franey, who put together the program guide for the first Vancouver International Film Festival and is now festival director and CEO, notes that in Paris in the 1970s, that city helped to underwrite the conversion of some of its treasured cinemas into multiplexes in return for their commitment to devote a portion of their programming to “arts and essays” cinema.
The diminishing theatre landscape is a big concern for VIFF. The Granville 7 was a flexible, central hub. Now Franey is looking at renting potentially expensive screens from Cineplex or temporarily converting facilities such as the Playhouse. “The city needs to take more leadership on policies that create cultural value,” Franey insists.
When Brent Toderian was Vancouver’s director of city planning, he met with some single-screen-theatre property owners, including the owner of the Ridge, hoping these cultural assets could be preserved. He believes the city needs to map its cultural assets, from neighbourhood cinemas right down to unique coffee shops, and think about the ways we can ensure that developers know what the city expects when it comes to protecting those assets—in a manner similar to city efforts to protect heritage buildings and affordable housing.
Toderian notes that money for such planning initiatives is always tight in Canadian cities, where property taxes are their only significant source of revenue. He argues, though, that it’s cheaper to be proactive. “Being reactive takes a lot of time and energy.”
Heather Deal, city council’s representative on Vancouver’s arts and culture policy council, says there is no formal initiative on cultural mapping in the works, and zoning is really the city’s key tool to protect cultural assets. She argues that it is very difficult to determine when governments should support the “for profit” cultural sector or to interfere when the sale of a property results in an unwanted change of use.
Councillor Raymond Louie, chair of the city standing committee on finance and services, told the Straight that city staff and council have opposed expanding the areas in which it provides tax relief “beyond heritage preservation or what is legally provided for organizations like schools and churches”.
In the meantime, the city moves ever closer to losing all its neighbourhood single-screen cinemas. The Dunbar will continue for now. A developer of retirement housing had his eye on the property but is instead acquiring single-family homes across the street for a proposed six-storey building. The Collingwood Cinema (formerly the Raja) on Kingsway faces a different challenge: it needs $75,000 to convert to digital technology within months, but it still won’t be able to get bankable films because it’s too close to the competing cinemas at Metrotown. The Park has a lease until September, with a three-year option to renew, but the Canada Line on Cambie makes redevelopment almost inevitable.
The Hollywood Theatre may be the most appealing opportunity to preserve a historic neighbourhood cinema as a single-screen or multiplex movie theatre because of its fabulous façade, its location, and the potential for zoning tradeoffs when the inevitable rapid transit brings more density to the Broadway corridor. The Bonnis family, however—which bought the property two years ago from the Fairleigh family, operators of the Kitsilano landmark since 1935—isn’t talking to the media about its intentions.
Whatever tools the city might eventually employ, they won’t save the Ridge. Schein is trying to find homes for a few artifacts: some vintage equipment, the huge stained-glass projector above the entrance, and the film screen’s gold-brocade curtains. Cressey will preserve the Ridge neon sign for the name of the new development. At least UBC engineering students will still be able to steal its huge letter E, as they once did to Schein’s astonishment and confusion.
Schein, who has always been an attentive custodian, has planned a fitting farewell: three or four films a day, including a sing-along Sound of Music (the film originally played at the Ridge for two years), two screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a special presentation on Thursday (January 31) of the landmark 1985 B.C. film My American Cousin.
Director Sandy Wilson remembers bringing that film to the Ridge (before its official premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival) after sound problems dogged an unofficial screening at Bumbershoot in Seattle. Ray Mainland came in early one morning to screen it for her; the sound was fine, and Wilson danced in the aisles. The movie went on to win six Genie awards, including best picture. Wilson, who based the film loosely on her own life growing up in the Okanagan, will bring her own 35mm print to the screening and will serve tea in the lobby from her Naramata grandmother’s teapot.
Schein had wanted the last picture show to be Casablanca, always his first choice to mark beginnings and endings. But the Ridge doesn’t have digital equipment, and he simply cannot get a 35mm print. “Twentieth Century Fox doesn’t even make 35mm films anymore.”
Yes, how things change. And that is why our city must respond with more foresight, vigour, and invention to support the people and places that sustain us.
The screening of My American Cousin is a benefit to establish an education fund for the children of long-time Georgia Straight film writer Ian Caddell. Tickets for the show—on Thursday, January 31, at 7 p.m.—are $10. All other screenings, except the sing-along Sound of Music ($10) and Rocky Horror Picture Show ($12.75), are $5. Details are on the Festival Cinemas website.