Community Planning

Imagine This: Downtown Kelowna has a New Movie Theatre

We're playing Fantasy Developer

New theatre brings the movies back to downtown Kelowna!” Sounds cool sure, but would it really work? Well, the answer is we don’t know, and we don’t have the financial resources, but we’re proposing it anyway. As the romantic William Blake said: “everything real was once imagined,” or as the kids are saying, ERWOI (just kidding, they’re not saying that), and that’s exactly what this new section is here for – a place to imagineer Kelowna! So instead of whining about the city’s offerings (hey we’re certainly guilty of that), we’re gonna play Fantasy Developer and propose some reality-based projects. Let’s jump in with our first one: a neighbourhood movie theatre.

The Background: “Creative Destruction” coming to theatres near you

I think I’m not alone when I say I miss having a movie theatre in downtown Kelowna and when it was announced last spring that the Paramount was closing, it came as a shock. As a pretty big film geek, it rattled me, and my reaction was almost like waking up to news that a favourite entertainer suddenly passed away – morose sure, but comparable.

Now nearly a year and a half later, the Paramount sign stands beautifully refurbished by Ronmor Developers Inc. (the Calgary company that owns the building) but alas, the sign appears to point to what’s missing.

Architectural drawings for the Paramount.

When Ronmor released architectural sketches of what was to go in Paramount’s place shortly after its closing, and hints were dropped that perhaps there still might be room for a theatre in the location, I retained some level of hope that among the retail and entertainment options going in there, someone would incorporate a screening area somewhere. And that new additional marquee out front was promising…

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, almost overnight a Tim Horton’s sign appeared there. Ah! I was pissed. Someone was peddling my warm nostalgic thoughts, my cinema sympathies back to me to sell multinational franchise-produced donuts. Moreover, there was no prior news about this from anywhere. No talk, no discussion, no community forum about what this might do to surrounding businesses, no public discourse about what direction the downtown might now be heading, not a peep about the relevance of cultural institutions in civic spaces. That was that.

Unsurprisingly, the gaslighting from Big Development began: a popular local blog celebrated the Horton’s opening, dedicating posts to the idea that it’s highly desirable and in-demand in this location (“about time!”), reinforced by the PR statement from the local commercial real estate company responsible for leasing this section of the building, stating “the lack of Tim Horton’s in downtown Kelowna had always been obvious.” Not cool, and woefully out of touch! But I digress.

Gettin’ over it

Anyhoo, I promised myself, no more bitching about the David and Goliath stuff that I have definitely done. Rather than bemoaning how I often don’t go to movies anymore because you need to drive a ways, or that most of my downtown evening experiences are spent in bars and restaurants, or that the big shiny blue sign now just teases me with the idea of a cinema that was cozy, cheap, served great popcorn, and showed good films that weren’t at the megaplex… I decided to just straight up fantasize. Nothin’ but dreams of diversifying those downtown activities.

Is it really Doable?

Certainly the Paramount cut bait when they did for financial reasons (Landmark stated the rent was too high to justify), and in this era of Netflix and 65″ 4K screens where people enjoy their cinema at home, it’s no instant moneymaker. Even less so when you consider Hollywood aims pretty much only to please the broad international market with recycled intellectual property resulting in flicks that are unoriginal, unappealing (just check the reviews and ratings for the last 2 blockbuster seasons) and likely best viewed in Imax or similar. Cinema markets are shrinking and it’s tough sledding for sure, but I think it’s a challenge that could be conquered with the right resources and approach.

After a recent visit to Vernon’s Towne Theatre, situated right in the heart of their downtown, I got to thinking that if I had the money, what would be the perfect location for a smaller scale version of the old Paramount to reopen in downtown Kelowna? What would work size-wise? How would the location function? Be a moneymaker? Require the least amount of redevelopment? I imagined I had a million dollars startup capital and out I went in search of a locale. It didn’t take long, perusing real estate offerings on a Bernard Ave. agent’s window, there it was: a pretty perfect location.

Ichiban Sushi building reimagined.

There wasn’t much news about Ichiban Sushi (366 Bernard St.) closing its doors back in late September, and the location on Bernard still sits vacant 6 weeks later. The commercial real estate ad had the property listed as a business for purchase, meaning that Ichiban Sushi on Bernard still might exist some time down the road. That didn’t matter for the purposes of the exercise here of course, however when I called the real estate agent responsible for the listing, she indicated that the entire property was just recently sold and that Ichiban Sushi was kaput (she was less than forthcoming about who bought it). While that is neither here nor there, I hope something new, fun and exciting goes into the location – perhaps a cinema!

left: Vernon Towne Theatre | right: The Bookshelf Cinema in Guelph

Hmm, Maybe it is doable: Some nuts and bolts

When I envision our new cinema location, it must have two floors (check! – the Ichiban location has that). The main level at the very front would serve as a bar and snack type of meeting place that serves up local craft beer and good local wine where moviegoers would meet either before or after the show. 366 Bernard comes with a full newly installed kitchen and open dining area (second box checked). The back and top level would house two theatres. The main level would have less seating but be accessible and available for business presentations as well as open up and serve as a social/party space with the bar. The top level theatre would be bigger, perhaps big enough to support 10 full rows of 8 – 10 chairs across for a 80-150 seat capacity throughout – about the size of the small theatres in an old-school cineplex.

Most of the work would need to be done on the top level, and I suspect that whatever exists there now as a second floor would have to be torn down and rebuilt to accommodate for a higher ceiling up top (and maybe extended west towards the hotel next door). Sounds great right? Just need to look into building permits and the fire department regs. Distribution rights and audio/visual are hardly prohibitive: with digital there’s no more technical projection costs (and hazards), and the film distribution cost is around 300 bucks/title.

Films that didn’t screen in Kelowna

Ticket costs and concession would have to be affordable, around $7.00 and $2.50 for a small bag of popcorn, and a membership, incentive program coupled with an eclectic film program (mainstream, indie, older films and docs) will get the butts in seats and on barstools yakking about the movies.

When the Paramount existed, Landmark Cinemas did a great job of bringing in smaller independent films. While the other 3 cinemas around the area have given a reasonable effort taking up the slack after Paramount’s closing in this particular regard, we have missed out on seeing a number of films that have played in other cities: Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, the sombre yet highly original Ghost Story, Sophia Coppola’s Cannes-winning The Beguiled (played at Vernon’s cinema), or this fall’s fantastic Wind River.
I kept thinking of a bustling little theatre I used to go to in Guelph, Ontario (much smaller than Kelowna) called the Book Shelf. It’s a bookstore, restaurant, bar and movie theatre. I point you to their calendar of November’s films to drool over. Now that’s what I’m talking about!

Is it sustainable? Moving Forward…

Certainly the digital revolution and proliferating screens have dealt the film industry the biggest blow they’ll receive for a while, and as the changes settle in, I think our project here can resurrect the theatre if it can create an experience that really focuses on what your iPhone or home entertainment centre lack: connection, community and ceremony – a night out.

The theatre could tap into pre-existing markets: bring back the Okanagan Film Festival, and incorporate the Kelowna Film Society (much like the Towne Theatre does – similarly Montreal’s relatively small Anglo film-buff community is served by a film society at the Cinéma du Parc indie theatre). With the new hotel and convention centre eventually opening a block or two away, themed film nights based on interest groups coming to town should bring ’em in, and of course there’s also sports and other civic events that are preferable to watch with fellow fans and town folk. Kelowna’s growing post-secondary education scene could definitely connect their projects with the real world more readily with such a facility as well… let’s see what can happen by bringing creativity downtown to the public.

So damn, I wish I had the money. If Vernon, Guelph and even Oliver can continue to run their smaller independent cinemas, then maybe we can too? Well, if anything, it makes you think.
I only hope that we’ve started a discussion about our civic spaces in hopes that we all keep talking about what’s possible in this growing city. ERWOI!