Multiculturalism is what makes Canada truly unique in the world. We have some of the highest immigration rates in the world as over 200,000 new residents make their home in Canada every year. Chinatown, Little Italy, Little India — these are names for areas of a large metropolis where those of like cultural heritage have congregated to create thriving communities. In Toronto, the rise of niche cultural film festivals and cultural-specific programming in theatres demonstrates how our multicultural country constantly changes not only our cities, but our cultural entertainment as well.
The opportunities to feature films from around the world as theatres expand to allow for more screens at every location, and getting foreign films to show is as easy as shipping a DVD, digital file or hard drive. Those who grew up in the ’80s recall when the first six-screen theatres started popping up. Today it is not unusual to see theatres featuring 10 or more screens, allowing space between the blockbusters and tentpoles for cultural-specific programming to occur. Independent and repertory theatres all over the city programme foreign films on a regular basis, either as retrospectives or new releases, but it is the fact that cultural programming has begun to sneak its way into major chains like Cineplex that shows how much appetite there is for these films. You may not know or think it, but every Cineplex theatre is programmed individually, giving each a more focused look at their customers’ interests and background. As an example, Brampton has a large South Asian population, and the local Cineplex (of which there is only one), has responded with a steady stream of Bollywood hits programmed at the theatres.
It’s good to know that we can still find a better variety in the choices available to us theatrically, and this is something that will only expand as diversity continues to grow across Canada.
Culturally-minded programming benefits both the company and the consumers. Cineplex benefits by increased ticket sales and patrons who find they’re not ignored when it comes to choice in the theatres. Even though box office numbers on a per theatre basis are not publicly available, packed theatres are a clear indication that culturally-minded programming is taking hold in a key financial way, as Mike Langdon from Cineplex points out, “We’re at the point now where, in some communities, if you open a big Bollywood film for example, it can outperform Hollywood product on that opening weekend.”
Initially this programming was a bit of trial and error. Cineplex could never be sure how popular these films would become, but CEO Ellis Jacob had a gut feeling there would be a market for the product. The company began trying various programming, finding it successful, and continued to test what was most popular. The process has become much easier now with certain markets showing consistent success with specific programming. Looking at the demographics of a city, as well as using the history of cultural programming in their theatres, Cineplex is able to program accordingly and finds continuing success in their chain.
Perhaps the biggest winners here are film fans. It used to be quite difficult to find films that came from outside of the Hollywood system, especially in outlying regions like Brampton, Ajax or Pickering, although marketplaces like Amazon and streaming services like Netflix have provided fans the chance to purchase films from around the world. Unless you have a home theatre, even seeing the film on a 56″ screen at home is not the same as being able to see them on the big screen, and Toronto is certainly a leader in the cultural programming field. Cineplex’s region-specific cultural programming allows access to films fan may not otherwise see, but for those who have immigrated here, this programming can feel like a taste of home. For others, it is their only chance to see their own culture represented on screen, since Hollywood rarely strays from the average American story.
Another way cinephiles win in the city of Toronto and its surrounding areas are film festivals. There are dozens of film festivals in the city now, focusing on every aspect of film you can imagine. There are too many to name (and more come and go every year), but some of the larger festivals include the Reel Asian Film Festival, the European Union Film Festival, the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival, aluCine Latin Film + Media Arts Festival, Brazil Film Fest and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. That’s really just scratching the surface of what the city has to offer, but the cultural programming that Cineplex offers gives fans a chance to see films from around the world on an ongoing basis.
The success of programming directly to the consumer also opens up the theatre screens to films that fall outside of the proven model. The Raid: Redemption hit screens in Canada in 2012 and has found worldwide success, but it probably would not have screened here 20 years ago. For Cineplex, there are various reasons behind the decision to screen the film. They are aware there is an interest there, proven by the previous programming in their theatres, but the vast size of those theatres is also part of the decision. If there are 12 screens to fill, they are able to program the typical Hollywood product which has a guaranteed audience, while still having room for films with a smaller audience, but one that is willing to head to the theatre when they get the chance.
For cinephiles, it opens up the world of film beyond our borders. For Canadians who may be new to the country, or who have parents that immigrated here, it can be a little taste of home.
That audience willingness is something that Langdon has had personal experience with. “I remember I was in Winnipeg, I was touring some theatres and I went to look in all the auditoriums, and it was a Wednesday night so a typically slower night for moviegoing, and I walked into one theatre and it was absolutely packed. It was programming that I didn’t recognize so I walked out and asked the GM what movie they were showing, and it was a Filipino film and it was packed on a Wednesday night. There’s definitely a market for the content and as an exhibitor, why wouldn’t we be interested in playing it?”
Although there is really no way to feature a huge selection of films from around the world in every Cineplex location, at least a strong effort is being made to offer to as much programming as possible from outside Hollywood. Whether you are a fan who lives inside a major cultural centre like Toronto, or in a small to mid-size town like London, Milton or Kitchener, it is clear that as Canada comes to embrace its diversity and multiculturalism, cultural programming will rise up to meet the demand.