It opened on Thursday, April 13, 1950, with a screening of Henry V, starring Laurence Olivier. There were searchlights and a pipe band, and patrons wore fine cashmere coats and stylish hats. It will close forever on Sunday, February 3, with a screening of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The farewell will be casual, and fond nostalgia may lead to a few sentimental tears.
The Ridge’s celebratory Last Film Festival, with $5 screenings that start this Friday (January 25), will mark the end of what is, right now, the city’s most storied cinema. How things have changed. There are no more movie theatres on Granville Street’s theatre row: no Plaza or Odeon, no Studio or Coronet, and no Granville 7. Neighbourhood cinemas are almost gone. The Varsity is an award-winning set of high-end condominiums. West Broadway’s Hollywood is a Pentecostal church awaiting elevation to redevelopment heaven. The Vancouver East Cinema is a construction site. The Starlight is a restaurant. The Denman is a Dollarama.
The Ridge, one of the holdouts, was always the best of them. Since it opened with its soundproof balcony crying room, a parent-friendly innovation so unique that no one else in the city ever bothered to follow suit, it has been on the leading edge of the Vancouver movie business. That became particularly true after 1977, when a former draft resister who had been teaching psychology at local colleges took over the lease from Alf Knowles. Young Leonard Schein had no idea where his interest in movies—kindled at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and expanded at the Saskatchewan university film club he founded—would eventually take him. Quite some distance, as it happens.
On March 31, 1978, the Ridge became an independent repertory cinema, with a double bill of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Casablanca. It showed classics and first-run specialty films and was soon our art-house flagship, the crucible of the Vancouver International Film Festival, and home of our first movie-theatre cappuccino machine. It was also the stylish stage for the cross-dressing, toast-tossing partisans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show until two city councillors and bitter enemies, George Puil and Harry Rankin, finally agreed on something and, in 1981, shut down the midnight screenings.
On a cloudy Tuesday January morning, after a brief chat with Larry the cleaner about the traditional Rocky Horror detritus of toast and toilet paper, Schein sits at the back of the theatre and contemplates its pleasures: the art deco clamshells that frame the screen; the scalloped ceiling that laps toward the front like a series of gentle waves. Most new movie theatres today, he says, are charmless boxes. And virtually all of them are multiplexes.
Schein is sad but philosophical about the end, which became inevitable in June 2011 when Sondra Green, the daughter of the late long-time property owner Arthur Fouks, sold the property for $15.6 million to Cressey Developments. “It seemed pointless to fight it,” Schein says. The zoning allowed for condos, and although the company briefly entertained his pitch to incorporate a multiplex, all the profits are in condominiums. “I know the reality of single screens,” Schein says. “I know the reality of land costs. And I’m lucky that this property wasn’t sold years ago.”
Schein’s involvement with the Ridge does have some happy endings. At the concession counter, he thumbs through some old programs, including the one-sheet for the first Vancouver International Film Festival, in 1982. It opened with Bruce Beresford’s The Club and featured Bonnie Sherr Klein’s documentary Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography, The Secret Life of Plants, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man. By 1985, the festival—which today is among the largest in North America—was growing so quickly that Schein sold his two theatre leases for nominal sums: the Ridge to projectionist Ray Mainland and the Van East Cinema to Alan Franey.
Schein, who also served a year as head of the Toronto International Film Festival, went on to spearhead art-house film-exhibition innovations across the country in partnership with Alliance Atlantis. Today, with long-time business partner Tom Lightburn, he runs Festival Cinemas, operators of the Ridge, the Fifth Avenue Cinemas multiplex on Burrard Street, and the Park Theatre on Cambie Street. The two also hold a mortgage on the Rio Theatre, where operator Corinne Lea has been dogged by Kafkaesque provincial liquor regulations in her effort to shift from a movie theatre with occasional live shows to a concert venue with the odd movie.
Schein came back to the Ridge, in 2005, after a tragedy. In 2000, Mainland was killed in a car crash on the Burrard Bridge. His successors failed to sustain the theatre as a rep house, and Schein took over the lease and returned it to its original role, showing more mainstream first-run films. Video and the Internet, despite wild predictions, didn’t devastate film exhibition, but they killed the repertory cinema.
It’s real-estate values, property taxes, industry economics, and competitive dynamics that are killing the neighbourhood theatre. That, Schein believes, is not entirely inevitable. “All the single-screen theatres are going,” he says. “It’s not unique to Vancouver.” But he believes that neighbourhood multiplexes are viable. That was Schein’s pitch to Cressey. He also has his eye on some city-owned property across from the Fifth Avenue Cinemas as a potential multiplex site.
“It’s land value that throws everything off,” Schein argues, noting that the resulting taxes, which were nearly $40,000 a year at the Ridge, can sometimes exceed the rent that theatre property owners receive. And that’s where he believes the city can play a role: by offering city property for such cultural uses.
It’s in this regard that Schein, a donor to the city’s governing Vision Vancouver party, and Dunbar Theatre operator Ken Charko, a 2011 city-council candidate for the rival Non-Partisan Association, are in agreement. Charko is frustrated that his property taxes are based substantially on the land’s development potential and contends that the city’s effort to shift one percent of the tax burden to residences from business should instead take one percent from all payers and use it for tax abatement for enterprises the community particularly values. “If I were king for a day, I would target the tax shift—one percent from all to all,” Charko says by phone.
Schein notes that in 2007 the provincial government gave municipalities new power to target tax relief for community revitalization. The province declared that Bill 35 “enables municipalities to use a broader tax-exemption tool to encourage many forms of revitalization within their communities”. In November, he adds, the city provided an incentive to software developer Hoot Suite to stay in Vancouver by giving it a lease-to-own deal on a city-owned police building near False Creek. The city also recently leased an unused Industrial Avenue warehouse to the nonprofit Arts Factory Society for artist studio space.
Vancouver does a commendable job of supporting nonprofit arts organizations with grants and, particularly, with “density bonusing” deals where developers build community facilities in exchange for increased overall square footage. One such facility is the nonprofit Vancity Theatre, current home of the Vancouver International Film Festival, which—along with the not-for-profit Cinematheque and the new cinema at SFU downtown—is one of three remaining public downtown single-screen theatres.
However, the city’s recent rearguard effort to preserve the innovative cultural programming at the Waldorf Hotel, which foundered, in part, because of the pending sale of the building to a condominium developer, left many wondering if Vancouver is doing all it can to foster “for profit” cultural institutions, which contribute enormously to our city’s cultural life.
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.