The sumptuous scent of popcorn that permeates City Cinema in downtown Charlottetown is tantalizing testament to the longevity of this movie house.
For the past 20 years, this 70-seat theatre, which is now the only full-time art house cinema in the Maritimes, has been showcasing the wider world of film to audiences eager to go beyond the mainstream.
In addition to being home to what is said to be the best real hot-buttered popcorn in town, it’s been the setting for countless dates and friendly outings, loads of birthday parties, one marriage proposal and even two weddings.
“It’s kind of like a big living room. It can be like being with a bunch of your friends sometimes,” says its founder Derek Martin as he scrawls the title of the coming show in white chalk on the unpretentious what’s-on-tonight blackboard mounted next to the volunteer ticket-taker’s table.
Since the screening of the very first movie, Strictly Ballroom, on Sept. 28, 1993, more than 1,700 movies have graced the big screen at this little cinema that could.
Before that, Martin was volunteering at the Off-the-Wall video store in Charlottetown when owner Peter Richards who, at the time had a Sunday Cinema film series at a mainstream theatre location, brought up the idea of an independent downtown cinema.
“So for various reasons we thought it was time that we had a little theatre in (downtown) Charlottetown,” says Martin, who secured a space in what was once the bottling plant for Seaman’s Beverages.
He started on a shoestring budget from a few small investors and charter members who were keen to see culturally significant movies on-screen.
“We were looking for more niche films that people wanted to see — myself and my friends included —the art films, the independent films, the foreign films, just good movies that for one reason or another (didn’t make it to the mainstream cinemas),” Martin says.
“We didn’t have an agenda that we must show all (of a specific genre), it was just what was good and interesting. Within that there’s a whole lot of variety, which was really nice. So at the end of the month there would be something for everybody; something would be a little more mainstream and something would be a little more obscure.”
Getting the films was no easy task in the early years.
“It was a big expense for us to ship those heavy, heavy 35-mm film prints around the country. Sometimes we’d have to pay to send them off to Vancouver or somewhere when we were done. For our kind of movie there might only be one or two copies in the whole of Canada. For a big release there’s going to be a few hundred copies and there will always be one in your neighbourhood.
“But the specialty (films are) is quite different,” Martin says.
This became much easier in 2002 when City Cinema joined a division of the Toronto Film Festival called the Film Circuit, which is a film outreach program that brings the best of Canadian and international films to theatres across the country.
Being in the thick of things in downtown Charlottetown has also worked to City Cinema’s advantage and for local restaurants for things like Food and Film outings.
“We’ve partnered up them (for organized events) — myself working with the chefs and figuring out a menu that was suitable with the (movie),” Martin says.
“So we’ve done Mexican food with (the film) Like Water for Chocolate. A Japanese feast with the whole sushi thing. And haute cuisine (in honour of) a French movie (by the same name) about a woman who went to cook for the president of France and she came up against this whole male cooking fraternity at the palace that wanted nothing to do with her. . . .”
City Cinema has also hosted live performances, community events and other gatherings, including the Aug. 2, 2008 wedding of Ryan Murphy and Emily Jelliffe.
Theirs was a match made in movie lovers’ heaven.
Jelliffe was volunteering for ticket sales at City Cinema about a decade ago when Murphy came in with his then girlfriend.
“He just came around the corner and I was like ‘whew, I have not seen a man that handsome in a long time.’ He was like ‘I know you’ and I knew I didn’t know him and that we’d never met before,” Jelliffe remembers.
“I didn’t seen him again for a few months but when I saw him next (at a local pub) he was single and it was boom-boom (heart palpitations).”
They started dating and, of course, that included going to movies at City Cinema.
“We did (volunteer ticket sales) on alternate nights,” Murphy says.
“So we were getting lots of time at the theatre. A lot of times he would be selling tickets before the movie and would go buy our (Zero Belgian) chocolate bars, get our seats, wait for him and once the movie started he would come in and sit with me. And vice versa,” Jelliffe adds.
“The theatre itself is really intimate. It’s just one little theatre. There’s a beautiful brick wall. It seemed perfect for our wedding. Originally we wanted to get married outside but I had the sneaking suspicion it was going to rain. . . and it did rain.”
Martin provided the cinema venue as their wedding gift.
“It was perfect. There were the (same number of guests as there were seats), so we didn’t have to rent chairs,” Jelliffe laughs.
“We showed a slide show and we also did a re-enactment of our meeting . . . because we wanted our guests to know that’s where we met. . . . The room was just filled with music and love. It was beautiful.”
Frank Connolly was in line in 1993 for the very first Strictly Ballroom movie and has made City Cinema a regular part of his entertainment ever since.
“Prior to that I’d always been a big fan of foreign films and the only way that you could really see them was (renting them) at the video store. The mainstream theatres really didn’t show them,” he says.
“So when City Cinema opened in 1993 all of a sudden they started showing these foreign films — Australian films, Chinese films, Canadian films, quirky British and Irish films — that you just wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise. . . ,” adds Connolly, who has been a volunteer ticket taker at City Cinema for the past 15 years.
“There are a lot more stories and visions out there rather than the Hollywood one. . . .
“It’s a matter of different perspectives and diversity. You don’t just have an American director telling a German story or an Iranian story or a Chinese story, you have German directors telling German stories and Iranian directors telling Iranian stories and Chinese directors telling Chinese stories and so on. And I think it’s important to get that global perspective of film.”
There have been renovations to City Cinema over the years, such as new seating, but the biggest change happened last year when the industry went digital.
“It was a bigger expense than starting the whole cinema when we started in 1993. It was more money to go digital than we spent on everything: screen, seats, renovations, the whole shooting match. . . ,” Martin says.
“So that’s part of the reason that I looked into the transition that we’re going through now. City Cinema is going to become a not-for-profit community-owned theatre.”
Last year the non-profit Charlottetown Film Society was formed to take over the cinema and progress toward that goal is being made.
“I’m looking for a bit of a change and also to secure the future of the cinema going forward. I think as a nonprofit also it will give the cinema a chance to maybe do some extra events; it can go for fundraising, film festivals and events that I as a for-profit wouldn’t necessarily have the time to do, as well as the access to some of the grants,” says Martin, who is staying on as manager.
With the myriad of options available for movie lovers today, City Cinema is still drawing appreciative audiences through its downtown doors.
“There is no direct substitute for going out to a movie theatre and having some popcorn and meeting up with some friends. It’s a shared experience,” Martin says.
“And you are getting more of a curated experience here because somebody is picking and choosing for you, just like a chef might go out and (search for) the freshest ingredients, what’s best out there this month? That’s what I’m doing, looking at each month at a time, trying to find something for everybody.”