Local news: Cineplex buys Festival Cinemas

The first daytime press screening I can remember attending took place at the Varsity Theatre in February 1994. It was for a British film called The Summer House — one of Lena Headey’s earliest starring roles — and the theatre in question was, at that time, run by a local outfit called Festival Cinemas.

A few years later, one of my first writing gigs, outside of the campus newspapers, was a series of articles that ran in Festival Magazine, one of two short-lived publications that were distributed at Festival Cinemas theatres between 1997 and 1998.

By that point, the Festival “chain” consisted of three theatres, one of which was the newly-built five-screen Fifth Avenue multiplex. And, at the time, most of the other first-run theatres in town were run by two national companies, Famous Players and Cineplex, that had pretty much owned the local theatre scene since I was a kid — though a new company entered the mix in 1999, when Cinemark opened a 12-screen theatre in downtown Vancouver called the Tinseltown. (I once attended a press conference with Arnold Schwarzenegger there prior to the release of The Sixth Day, which had been filmed in Vancouver — and I got a kick out of the fact that, in one scene, an ambulance drove right past the very theatre that we were sitting inside.)

And then, things got complicated. Festival Cinemas was sold to Alliance-Atlantis Cinemas, which was partly owned by Famous Players. And then, in June 2005, Cineplex bought Famous Players — a sale that was permitted by the Competition Bureau on condition that Cineplex re-sell some of its theatres after the merger. And so Festival Cinemas returned as an independent entity (acquiring the previously-independent Ridge Theatre along the way), while a handful of other theatres were sold to Empire, a national chain that had never had a presence in Vancouver before.

That diversity has gradually faded away, though.

In November 2010, Cineplex took over the Tinseltown theatre, so Cinemark is no longer a part of the Vancouver landscape.

Then, in 2012, Empire closed both of its theatres in Vancouver: the Oakridge and the Granville, the latter of which had been host to the Vancouver International Film Festival for several years. (Empire continues to operate theatres in Surrey and North Vancouver, two regions that are separated from Vancouver proper by rivers.)

And now, reports the CBC, Cineplex has re-acquired Festival Cinemas — thus giving Cineplex a virtual monopoly on the Vancouver movie-theatre scene. And this, less than two weeks after Festival had to close the Ridge Theatre entirely. (The Varsity, for its part, was torn down way back in 2006.)

There is still some diversity within the city, thank goodness, in the form of the Pacific Cinematheque and the VanCity Theatre, both of which are run by non-profit societies that provide a great showcase for world cinema new and old. And, far from the downtown core but still within Vancouver proper, there are still independent neighbourhood venues such as the Rio, the Collingwood and the Dunbar.

But still. It feels like an era has ended, again.

(Note: The fourth paragraph in this post links back to three earlier blog posts of mine, in which I discuss other memories of mine associated with these theatres. All the other links in this post, however, are to websites and news stories outside of this blog.)

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his award-winning film column for that paper, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He has also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005) and The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and Its Reception in Film (De Gruyter, 2016).