Cineworld Group PLC has agreed to buy Cineplex Inc., in a Dec. 16, 2019 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Canadian filmmakers worry Cineplex takeover signals new hurdles ahead

International distribution agreements could squeeze out the thinning number of Canadian distributors

Titus Heckel wants Canadians to see his next film “Chained” on the big screen, but the director fears a looming takeover of Cineplex Inc. might stamp out those lofty ambitions.

Landing a nationwide theatrical release for his Canadian crime-thriller was always a long shot, since few homegrown films get such a massive platform. But if the country’s biggest film exhibitor is sold to global powerhouse Cineworld, some in the domestic film industry worry Canadian cinema may lose a valuable avenue to audiences.

“It’s already so difficult,” the Vancouver-based filmmaker said of the struggle for meaningful Canadian distribution and support from exhibitors.

“It’s like adding another 100-pound weight onto a 1,000-pound weight.”

Beyond the financial details of Cineworld’s $2.8-billion offer to buy Cineplex, announced this week, Canadian film producers say there’s another conversation they’re still trying to comprehend: how deeply the acquisition could ripple through the local film market, affecting everyone from creators to distributors.

Cineworld’s chief executive Mooky Greidinger emphasized in a call with investors on Monday that “scale matters” for the U.K.-based company as it negotiates deals with Hollywood studios. That means he’s interested in leveraging his company’s strength to broker agreements for Marvel superhero movies and other huge blockbuster franchises that would play on Canadian screens, at its U.S. chain Regal and other brands it owns in Ireland, Israel and across Europe.

Those international distribution agreements could squeeze out the thinning number of Canadian distributors, including Elevation Pictures, which owns the domestic rights to mid-size films that include ”Hustlers” and “Midsommar,” and plays an instrumental role in Canadian-made projects, such as the upcoming “American Woman” and “Blood Quantum.”’

READ MORE: U.K. company to buy Cineplex, Canada’s largest theatre chain, for $2.8B

Greidinger didn’t address how wide-release Canadian productions, which in the past included the Inuit lacrosse drama “The Grizzlies” and hockey comedy “Goon: Last of the Enforcers,” would factor into his business model, nor how Cineworld would handle the Quebec market where French-language cinema is a major part of the cultural landscape.

Representatives for Cineworld did not return requests for comment. Cineplex is in a seven-week period that allows it to solicit, evaluate and negotiate other acquisition offers from third parties, which could include a Canadian buyer.

On Tuesday, a group of independent Quebec movie theatres lambasted the Cineplex acquisition in a statement that called on Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault and provincial Culture Minister Nathalie Roy, to “vigorously” defend the country’s cultural industries from outside influence.

“We must take all available means to prevent foreign content from suffocating our domestic film production,” said the group of signatories, which included Mario Fortin, who oversees three Montreal independent cinemas.

“Going to the movies is the most important leisure activity for Quebecers and Canadians. Are we going to let a foreign multinational decide which films we are going to see? Are we going to leave it to Cineworld Group to decide the future of our cinema?”

The head of the union representing Canadian performers said that while Cineplex, which represents 75 per cent of the nationwide market, hasn’t always wholeheartedly supported Canadian films on its screens, they’ve offered a valuable outlet in a changing entertainment industry. He said while the streaming boom has led to an uptick in domestic production led by Netflix, that hasn’t necessarily done much to amplify Canadian representation on those U.S.-owned platforms.

“Where the streaming services are failing us is actually telling Canadian stories,” said David Sparrow, president of ACTRA.

“Canadian writers aren’t being employed to the same degree because the streaming services are focusing largely on American content.”

Ron Mann, co-founder of independent distributor Films We Like, said he’s already lost confidence in Canada’s exhibitors and doesn’t predict any positive change if Cineworld steps into the market.

The Hollywood monoculture has already swallowed up the interests of most independent theatres, he said, pointing to the recent opening of Toronto’s Paradise theatre, which he hoped would aspire to the art-house footprint of New York’s Film Forum or Metrograph, which prioritize indie and foreign films. Instead, he said programmers at Paradise are leaning heavily on “silly” comedies such as “Wayne’s World” and “Uncle Buck.”

“(Most exhibitors) want to sell alcohol and charge $10 for butter-layered popcorn… It’s just a horrible experience. You have to wait for 30 minutes to see your movie after all the trailers. That’s how they make their money,” Mann said.

“We’re cinephiles. We’ve lost the war, but that doesn’t mean we’re on the wrong side.”

Vancouver filmmaker Warren Sulatycky suggests it’s time federal leaders seriously consider imposing a screen quota system that could bolster the local film market against the perceived cultural threat of Hollywood. It’s a concept that’s been used in many countries, including France, South Korea and Spain, to ensure local stories are given space, though critics question the concept’s success.

Screen quotas might’ve helped elevate awareness for his independent film “April in Autumn,” which played in four independent Canadian theatres earlier this fall after Cineplex rejected his application to show it on their screens. He released the film using a roadshow model where he travelled to each city where it played.

“It was so hard to get into theatres — to get any time — in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary or Montreal,” Sulatycky said.

“And it’s going to be harder now.”

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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