Calgary film festival to include Chinook cinemas for 2024 screenings, unveils three-year plan

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The Calgary International Film Festival has unveiled a three-year plan to help it deal with a lack of screens and theatres in the downtown core. It includes the temporary adoption of six screens at the Cineplex Scotiabank Chinook Theatre in 2024 and the eventual purchase of six mobile projectors to ensure more downtown venues can be transformed into theatres in future years.

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The plan, announced on Tuesday at the Plaza Theatre, answers a question that has been top-of-mind for festivalgoers ever since it was announced that Cineplex Eau Claire Market Cinemas would close: Where will CIFF screen movies in the future?

The cinemas and the rest of Eau Claire Market are to be demolished this year to make way for the future Green Line LRT station. The venue has been a central hub for the festival for more than a decade, providing six screens and various other facilities such as a VIP lounge, guest-relations office and main box office.

“I got that question from every volunteer and most members of the public I engaged with,” says Katherine Penhale, acting executive director for the festival. “I’m just so excited we can finally answer that question.”

Calgary International Film Festival acting executive director Katherine Penhale speaks at the Plaza Theatre in Kensington on Tuesday. Photo by Brent Calver/Postmedia /Brent Calver/Postmedia

CIFF is not leaving downtown for the 2024 festival,  which will be its 25th year. Films will also be screened at the Globe Cinema, the Plaza Theatre in Kensington and Contemporary Calgary this year. Screenings will be held at these three theatres during the opening days of the festival from Sept. 19 to 22. The Chinook cinema will be added for screenings from Sept. 23 to 29. Eventually, the plan is to expand screenings to venues throughout the downtown core using new state-of-the-art mobile projectors.

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The festival plans to purchase two new projectors every year from 2025 to 2027, for a total of six. These projectors, which cost between $60,000 to $100,000, will also be made available to arts and community organizations year-round.

Meanwhile, temporarily adopting the Chinook Centre should give the festival a bit of a boost in profile, attracting new audience members who haven’t ventured downtown for screenings in previous years, Penhale says. In total, there will be 11 to 13 screens showing films in 2024.

Eau Claire
The Cineplex Odeon in Eau Claire Market closed some time ago and the mall is being torn down. Photo by Brent Calver/Postmedia /Brent Calver/Postmedia

“This year, having Chinook gives us a little bit of a safety net,” she says. “It also gives us the time to acquire the first two projectors and allows us the time to continue to develop relationships with potential venue partners within the constellation. Our goal, ultimately, is to come back downtown. We believe in the vitality of Calgary’s core. We want to contribute to that.”

The plan is to add more screening venues downtown each year. Penhale says spaces such as Arts Common and the DJD Dance Centre are venues the festival hopes to use in the future.

“Part of this planning process we have been in for the last two years is going into almost any venue we could get into and doing an incredibly extensive assessment,” she says. “When we got our 2023 audience survey results back, the single most important thing for our audience was the visual and audio experience of the film itself. So we know not every space is adaptable for that.”

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These projectors only came onto the market a few years ago, Penhale says. Previous projectors were much bigger and heavier and required special exhaust and power requirements that made them hard to move.

The three-year plan is in response not only to the closure of Eau Claire but to a nagging problem of screen availability over the past 25 years. In that time, 85  per cent of cinema-ready screens have closed in downtown Calgary. Penhale was interviewed earlier this month by various media outlets about The Globe Cinema being up for sale and the impact this could have on screening capacity.

Plaza Theatre in Kensington is a longstanding venue for the Calgary film festival. Gavin Young/Postmedia

But the festival has known about both the closure of the Eau Claire screens and the “precarious situation” of The Globe for years, which is why staff began formulating this plan years ago. The Grand Theatre, another downtown space, was also in the news earlier this year. It had been facing the prospect of shutting down by the end of the year, but was given new life after the building owner re-entered negotiations with the society that operates it.

“Eau Claire closing was a plan that was well-known,” says Penhale. “I started at CIFF about nine years ago. It’s been ‘next year it’s going to close’ every year for the past nine or 10 years. So that certainly wasn’t a surprise. The Grand was, but I’m excited they are continuing conversations and we’re excited to support them however we can because we think it’s an important venue in the city. But things like The Globe, for example, the only reaction was surprise that other people hadn’t realized it. It’s been on sale since October of 2020, so that was not a surprise in any way to CIFF. But (the discussion) was actually in some ways beneficial to us because in the conversations we would have with stakeholders and the community and funders previously, we would have to explain that the Globe was up for sale and that these venues were at risk. Now having that being more topical there’s a sense of urgency.”

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Penhale says purchasing the projectors and related equipment will likely cost between $650,000 to $700,000 over three years, which should be manageable for a festival that has been financially sound for more than a decade. CIFF will make an appeal to the community for funding, but Penhale says the project is “so attainable.”

“This is a very reasonable way, a cross-effective way, of approaching a really big and hard problem,” she says. “That’s what great for us. This is a pretty simple approach. It’s not easy, but it’s an approach that centres community. Regardless of the spaces we’re in, we have a very strong community that engages with CIFF.”

 — With files from Matt Scace, Postmedia News

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