Monday Night Movies

Each year, Monday Night Movies presents about a dozen films on one or two Monday nights a month from September to May.

September 21, 2002 | | Back Issues

At 8 a.m., on a cool and drizzly Sunday last May, a small group began gathering outside the Galaxy Cinemas in Orangeville. By 8:45 when the cinema doors finally opened, the crowd had swelled to 200. By 9 a.m., when the lights went down, there wasn’t a spare seat in the house.

This has been a year of blockbuster cinema: Star Wars – Attack of the Clones, Lord of the Rings, Spiderman, Harry Potter. But the film that attracted the early morning crowd was none of these. It was Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), a three-hour, subtitled epic about the frozen north.

So why the crowd? Partly because this milestone Canadian production is the first feature-length film ever to be written, directed and acted by Inuit people, and performed entirely in Inuktitut. And partly because the film, a romantic conflict set against the splendid vastness of the Arctic landscape, had already garnered huge national and international acclaim, winning the Camera d’or for best first feature film at Cannes, six Canadian Genie awards, including best picture and director, and a host of other awards in Europe and the U.S.

But the main reason so many people had dragged themselves out of bed on Sunday morning to see Atanarjuat was that it would be their only chance.

The film’s one-time only Orangeville showing was organized by Monday Night at the Movies, a small committee of five local film buffs who have been bringing high-quality, independent films to Orangeville for the past five years. Each year, MNM presents about a dozen films on one or two Monday nights a month (the Sunday show was an exception) from September to May. Last year’s lineup included such notable titles as Kandahar, Gosford Park and The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Monday Night at the Movies is part of the Film Circuit, a division of the Toronto International Film Festival Group. Started in 1992, the Film Circuit now operates in about 95 communities in seven provinces. Its mandate is primarily to bring excellent independent films to communities that might not otherwise have access to them.

But the Headwaters region, a stone’s throw from the big movie market of Toronto, is hardly a backwater. Why shouldn’t local audiences expect to see critically acclaimed independent and foreign films, especially now that Orangeville boasts a brand new multiplex?

Not surprisingly, it all has to do marketing and money, says Film Circuit manager Blair Haynes. “Commercial cinemas like the Galaxy in Orangeville require mass marketing to trigger their audiences. The big blockbusters may come with $30 million worth of marketing – the really big ones may spend $80 million – to reach a market of 12 to 22 year olds, the prime market for Hollywood screens.” Independent films, generally targeted to the 35-plus crowd, can’t compete at the same level as the five major American studios, he says. It would be unusual, for example, for a Canadian film to spend $1 million on marketing.

But getting to see alternative fare isn’t the only incentive for members of the Film Circuit. The program also appeals to local, non-profit organizations because it is a fundraising opportunity – “profits” from the showings are turned back into the community.

It was its fundraising potential that convinced Headwaters Country Tourism Association to give the program a try in 1997. The first film, Ulee’s Gold, made a modest profit and Jan Smith-Bull, HCTA’s general manager at the time, pulled together a committee to pursue the program. (Jan later left HCTA, but stayed with the committee.)

The program’s second year was also a banner one for independent films. The extraordinary lineup included Red Violin, Last Night, Elizabeth, Hilary & Jackie, Wilde and Life is Beautiful, among other excellent fare. If it weren’t for MNM, none of those movies would have made it to Orangeville and the one-night showings packed the theatre. The film committee was euphoric with its success.

The third season, however, restored sobriety. Though still a very solid lineup, with such films as Snow Falling on Cedars, An Ideal Husband and Mansfield Park, revenue fell from the previous year.

What the committee learned, says Jan, is that success has a lot to do with the quality of the films available in any given year and “we couldn’t bank on it.”

Another year of uncertain revenues persuaded HCTA to get out of the film business. The decision came at about the same time the film committee, now with a loyal core audience, was beginning to chafe under the constraints of having to select films that guaranteed a profit every time out. HCTA and MNM parted company amicably and the film group ran its first independent season last year.

The change came at the same time as another big move for MNM, to the shiny, new Galaxy Cinemas multiplex. Until then, all the MNM films had been screened at the venerable, but slightly frayed Uptown Cinemas on Broadway. The committee’s decision to move was a difficult one, says Jan, but the Galaxy had lots to offer. “The stadium seating is much better for subtitled films, the washroom facilities are better, and you don’t have to line up outdoors.”

The cinema itself held fewer seats, about 240 compared to 360 or more at the Uptown (which closed a few months later), but the committee solved the problem by offering a second screening at 9:20 p.m. This coming season, they’re adding a third screening at 4:30 p.m. Already more than 100 subscription passes have been sold for the early show, which promises to be a winner among the high number of retired or self-employed audience members whose time is flexible.

In fact, attendance overall has climbed significantly since the committee became independent. Perhaps the move to the Galaxy helped, perhaps word-of-mouth has finally reached critical mass. In either case, subscription passes (about two-thirds of total ticket sales) for the two early shows are all but sold out for the coming season. Single tickets can be purchased in advance at BookLore or the cinema. It’s definitely risky to wait to get one at the door on the night of the film.

Being independent has also allowed the committee to make bolder decisions about its film selections, says Jan Smith-Bull. “We know what our audiences like, but we’ve also become more comfortable with occasionally challenging the audience with a more difficult film. We don’t guarantee that they’re going to like every film, but we do guarantee that all the films will be worth seeing.

“Now, as long as we cover our costs, we don’t care if we make money on every film,” she says. If there is a surplus, the committee donates it to a community organization. The main costs are the theatre rental and the distributor’s fee (about 35 per cent of the box office). A portion of the latter eventually makes its way to the actual makers of the film.

It doesn’t sound like much per film, but the Film Circuit is having an impact on the independent film industry. Last year, according to Blair Haynes, the Circuit attracted a total audience of 220,000 who collectively paid $1.3 million for their tickets. “When you consider that 20 to 30 per cent of that was for Canadian programing, it represents about $300,000 of found money for the Canadian film industry. That’s pretty big when you figure that, if a Canadian film makes $100,000 to $200,000, it’s considered a hit.” He says that Circuit box office accounts for about 10 per cent of many Canadian film grosses.

Canadian films routinely make up a significant portion of the MNM season. Last year, five of the 12 films were either Canadian or co-Canadian productions. The group makes its selection from a list supplied by the Film Circuit two to three times a year. But the list provides only rudimentary information about each film, so the committee supplements it with their own research, including attending the Toronto International Film Festival as well as the all-Canadian Sudbury festival and a new festival in Barrie – and they consult a lot with the Circuit staff.

A year or two ago, MNM also began showing short films with most of its feature presentations. The practice is now unusual in most cinemas, with the result that short films, often fine early efforts by budding filmmakers, rarely get seen by the public.

Like Jan, Susan Clelland has been with the committee since day one. “On that first night at Ulee’s Gold, Jan was up there right in front of me asking for volunteers. She passed me the clipboard and I signed up while the film was rolling.”

Susan, editor of the MNM newsletter, became a film buff at an early age, when her mother began dropping her at the cinema while she ran errands. Susan’s attendance fell off after she married and was at home with two young sons. But then she took a page from her mother’s book – and turned it. She began occasionally leaving the boys at home for some quality “guy time” with their father while she drove to Toronto and took in two or three movies on a Sunday afternoon.

“Years ago I would see anything and everything, but because of the films I have been exposed to through MNM, I am now more selective,” she says. “It’s an extremely important part of my life, something I think about and like to share. What’s most amazing for me is the realization that in such a small town there is such a large number of people who have the same passion.”

For information on MNM’s movie lineup and to subscribe to their email newsletter visit www.mondaynightmovies.ca.

About the Author More by Signe Ball

Signe Ball is publisher/editor of In The Hills.

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