On Dec. 4, 2020, cinephiles across the national capital region likely grieved after news broke that a beloved local independent movie theatre would shut its doors for good. The ByTowne Cinema would permanently close on New Year’s Eve, according to a statement in the theatre’s newsletter.
It had been a rough year for the cinema. Business stalled when the pendulum of public health restrictions swung to their most prohibitive form. When that pendulum finally swung in the other direction and things opened up, the theatre faced the tall order of drawing its moviegoers out of their homes and into a shared public space with little new material to screen.
“The cinema has been losing money every day since the pandemic hit,” says the statement from owner Bruce White. “Even when we’ve been allowed to be open, audiences are dramatically smaller.”
Months later, followers of the ByTowne’s Instagram account would scroll on a cryptic post in their feed.
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Shortly thereafter, the ByTowne’s newsletter hit subscribers’ inboxes to shed light on what was in store for the resurrected cinema. “I’m pleased to announce that Andy Willick & Daniel Demois will be taking over the cinema,” Bruce’s statement reads. “These two have experience, enthusiasm, and I’m beyond excited to see them carry on the ByTowne story.”
Daniel Demois and Andy Willick, the duo who purchased the Fox Theatre in Toronto and the Apollo Theatre in Kitchener, are no strangers to pulling struggling indie cinemas out of the fire. Demois says he and Willick’s desire to get into the business existed long before their first theatre purchase of the Fox in 2007.
“We’d done a lot of independent screenings throughout Toronto, just pop-ups and stuff like that,” says Demois. “More cult-based cinema at the time because we were younger, I guess. And a bit more ‘punky,’ maybe.”
The two kept a close eye on the theatre and its programming, says Demois. “The ByTowne has a reputation for being able to find success with artsier titles—movies that wouldn’t necessarily work anywhere else even across Canada,” he says, explaining that the ByTowne clientele seemed to attend those films in higher numbers. “We would never dream of playing some of the movies that the ByTowne plays at other places, because they might not have the same level of success.”
The independent movie business being a relatively small one in Canada, over the years they kept in touch with the ByTowne’s operator, White. When it became clear that White was ready to retire, Demois and Willick approached him.
“We came to an agreement, and he thought that we were okay to take care of his beloved space. And he trusted us that we wouldn’t alienate the existing audience and would have a similar goal in mind as he does,” says Demois.
We’ve always felt confident that that audience will always be there. There’s always going to be people that want to go to a big screen and see a movie with an audience.
Asked how he feels about taking over the ByTowne, Demois says, “It’s exciting, more than anything. It’s just such a fantastic opportunity.” At the same time, he acknowledges that their faith in the independent film scene may seem “silly” to some.
“There’s a strong business case,” he says. “We’ve done this for a long time, we’ve seen the numbers. And if there’s any apprehension, it’s just that maybe it’ll take a bit of time to get going. And that would be more of a COVID thing than an independent cinema thing.”
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“These independent cinemas are our niche. They are for a small audience,” he says. “We’ve always felt confident that that audience will always be there. There’s always going to be people that want to go to a big screen and see a movie with an audience.”
Willick and Demois are betting on audiences having a strong appetite for that niche experience, perhaps in part because they’ve experienced that appetite firsthand. In the early- to mid-1990s, the two would go to indie theatres. A pivotal moment for Demois was attending midnight movie nights for the first time in Toronto, like the blaxploitation comedy Dolemite or the Italian gothic The Beyond by Lucio Fulci.
“It takes a while before you realize that there is an alternative, right?” he says. “There is something other than the big opening weekend movie. You realize, ‘Oh, I can go to this other theatre in my neighbourhood. And not only is it cheaper but it’s playing movies that I’ve never heard of, or movies that my parents told me they remember seeing on the big screen.'”
Demois is so confident in the success of the ByTowne that he’s moving to Ottawa from Toronto, in order to be on the ground and connecting with the greater community.
Cinemagoers eager to get back into the ByTowne’s plush seats can mark their calendars for September, says Demois. “I wish we were open now. But we want to make sure we get it right.”
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Asked about what folks in Ottawa can expect when the downtown theatre reopens, Demois says there will be a blend of tradition and some new elements, like the possibility of securing a liquor license and partnering with local breweries and wineries.
The ByTowne will continue to play the same sort of titles it’s known for, with some additional selections. “If there’s a new genre film that might crossover a little bit better for a slightly younger audience, then maybe we’ll try and play that as well,” says Demois, citing folk horror flick Midsommar as an example.
“We’d like to partner with the community, and we like to reach out to people to participate and collaborate” he says, adding that an example of such a partnership might be holding a lecture led by a local expert related to a film screening.
“I think that most people who go there will still feel like they’re walking into the ByTowne,” says Demois. “Probably the most important thing to us is that people feel like they’re still coming back to the place that they’ve loved for years, and there’s a few new options available.”