Behind the Scenes at Metro Cinema (The Garneau Theatre)

In a world… with a local cinema and an unfortunate case of having too few places to park, the executive director of the Garneau Theatre, David Cheoros, reflects on the thrills (and some of the negatives) of running one of two old movie theatres still open in Edmonton. 

The Garneau Theatre has been standing since 1940 and has been a community establishment for film in Edmonton. A national non-profit organization called Metro Cinema, since 2011, has made the theatre a prominent Edmonton location for film through creative events, showing local content, and selecting entertaining film series. That comes with its challenges too.

“I think that there are a few things that we try to do to separate ourselves,” says Cheoros. “The first thing is the facility itself. Because it is a classic old space and a single 500 seat theatre, there is a different feeling to watching a movie here than in a ‘plex space with 40 other people in a concrete box, so there is a difference in the experience there.”

Larger chains have made moves in an attempt to capture that experience. Steve Noonan, a spokesperson for AMC Theatres, a separate major chain of theatres in the United States, told The Stamford Advocate, “The industry has spent decades focusing on how many people can we get into our buildings. There really has been renewed focus on the guest and what gets them excited about getting into the theatre.” AMC has added new food and beverage options, including liquor. Metro Cinema is currently offering liquor at the Garneau, but they are also elevating the guest experience and have made theatre going unique.

“The other obvious thing that we do (differently) is the variety of our programming,” says Cheoros. “Most theatres, you know, even the ones that have programming (which) have arts programming kind of films, tend to do runs of one for one to three weeks of a film, where they screen that film all the time. We are likely to have anywhere like ten to fifteen different films playing in our theatre in any given week.”

Metro Cinema plays movies in a different way. They host special events throughout the year and theme their food and aesthetic to what they are watching. For example, on Easter weekend, they’ll be having a Monty Python movie night and will be serving cheeses. When they play Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me next week, they’re planning to recreate a diner experience with pie and donuts. They also considered having a replica of one of Wallace & Gromit’s contraptions for a retrospective of Nick Park’s movies, but sadly, it was not to be.

Metro Cinema hosts an Oscars night event. The audience attends in fancy attire and drinks champagne in the lobby. Once inside, the Garneau screens the awards ceremony with highlights from previous years while the advertisements are playing. In addition, as it’s a five to six hour show, the theatre also plays the awards in the lobby so attendees can stay caught up. Metro Cinema has in the past also provided hot food, silent auctions, quizzes, and games during the Oscars. This year was specifically interesting as La La Land was mistakenly announced as Best Picture, instead of Moonlight.

“We had a good 20 people sort of pick up and leave the instant that Moonlight was…I’m sorry…that La La Land was announced as the winner,” says Cheoros. When the mistake was corrected, “it was just pandemonium. It literally had people in their seats yelling at the screen. It was fantastic. So I’m sure it was terrible for everyone involved at the Oscars, but it was great theatre for us.”

If you’d like a sugary breakfast and a spoonful of nostalgia at the theatre, The Garneau screens Saturday morning cartoons with all-you-can-eat cereal. A Facebook user who went to the event commented, “such a fun experience, a vintage theatre that shows a lot of different movies from the standard Cineplex theatres and has really fun events. I’ve been to Saturday morning cartoons and you can eat cereal twice and it was a blast both times.”

Cheoros, brimming with passion for the medium, said that since 2011, they have “probably (presented) 50 innovative collections, series, festivals (…) and probably 150, maybe 200 premieres of Alberta made work” as well. They have nurtured several new film festivals and now they have become independent organizations. The Garneau has had “about 450,000 – 500,000 people come through” but Cheoros admitted that “a lot of those are the same people coming in over and over again because we love those people.”

A Vancouver-based film called Heel Kick! had its world premiere at the Garneau Theatre last month to a packed audience. Rebel Arcade, the production company behind the film, said to us that “they’re fantastic to work with, one of the best theatre operators I’ve worked with among others.”

However, the Metro Cinema does come across a few issues. Other than the limited parking (Cheoros recommends taking the transit), the amount of resources available does deter the organization from putting on more events. The amount of money and volunteers alters what the cinema can do.

“The challenges are money, figuring out ways to engage in ways that are efficient for people,” says Cheoros. “We’re not wasting people’s time and we’re making good use of our community’s resources, and like everybody else, we always miss opportunities. We really like to try to be part of the zeitgeist and [have] a sense of what’s happening right now.” 

Despite being open to screening local films, Metro Cinema is selective in its process. Cheoros equated it to a “sausage factory.”

“It’s not an exact science. You know, if someone is really passionate about a film even if other people are going ‘really that one?’ odds are good that somebody passionate is likely to get that film on the screen. (…) We try really hard not to put on films that make you go ‘yeah, that was okay.’ There’s lots of places to go see that movie.”  

Asked about local Alberta-made films and if there’s an audience, he said “I’m not sure if there’s an audience for Alberta film, but there is always an interest in films I connect with and certainly Alberta films are more likely to connect with us.” Interestingly, he also thought it’s difficult to tell if a film is Canadian nowadays from just looking at it unless a landmark is shown on screen.

The Garneau Theatre is a beacon for local films and an alternative to the bigger cinema corporations in Canada, despite that troublesome parking situation. The non-profit does face issues with resources when bigger ideas spring forward, but it has managed to reel in a community to the same 77-year-old cinema time and time again.

Pictures provided by Metro Cinema.

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