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Venerable Ridge Theatre's future in doubt

After 60 years and hundreds of movies, the end credits appear to be looming for the venerable Ridge Theatre, birthplace of the Vancouver International Film Festival and a neighbourhood theatre on Arbutus Street.

High rents and the challenges of making a one-screen theatre work in a multiplex age are converging to doom the Kitsilano theatre, which has tended to show independent, foreign and Canadian films - Atom Egoyan's new thriller Chloe opens there on Friday - and continues to host screenings for the Vancouver festival.

Leonard Schein, founder and president of Festival Cinemas, which runs the Ridge Theatre as well as the Park Theatre on Cambie and Fifth Avenue Cinemas multiplex on Burrard Street, says his five-year lease on the 480-seat Ridge ends on Dec. 31 of this year.

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"Unless our landlord reduces our rent greatly, we will not be able to renew," Mr. Schein told The Globe and Mail in an e-mail commenting on the theatre's future.

The founder of the Vancouver International Film Festival and a former executive director of the Toronto International Film Festival expressed concern about the viability of the theatre, which he formerly owned and began operating again in recent years.

"We have lost money for our first [four]years, and cannot continue to do so. We love the Ridge and would love to keep it going, but we need a significant rent reduction to do so."

Mr. Schein was out of the country this week so otherwise unavailable for comment on the fate of the theatre, which was opened in 1950 and now sits in a small strip mall.

But the landlord for the property says it appears that the Ridge just isn't working as a cinema in a current climate dominated by multiplexes.

"I'm not sure it's because of the rent," Sondra Green of Sonjan Enterprises Ltd., the holding company that is renting the Ridge to Mr. Schein, said in an interview Thursday.

"I feel, from our conversations, that he just feels that a single theatre doesn't work any longer. They can't compete with multiplexes," she said.

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"He doesn't feel there's going to be enough business in a single theatre, in that particular location to keep it operating."

She said previous talks about transforming the theatre into a multiplex have gone awry because of city regulations that would "have us jump through lots of hoops to accomplish it," imposing costs that would doom the possibility.

She said it would be nice to keep the Ridge space as a theatre under new ownership.

"But if [Mr. Schein]can't make it happen, I don't think anybody can," she said. "He's got the most experience in theatres and he's a great tenant."

Alan Franey, director of the Vancouver film festival, managed the Ridge from 1979 to 1985, under Mr. Schein, then the owner.

Mr. Franey said the festival would survive the loss of the Ridge because it has nine other screens across the city such as the Granville 7 Cinemas and its own Vancity Theatre on Seymour Streeet.

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But he said the loss of the vintage theatre would be a blow for film buffs in Kitsilano and the neighbourhood around the theatre.

"It's amazing the Ridge has hung on as long as it has. It's just not the way the market is going," said Mr. Franey.

Mr. Franey, who has been going to movies at the Ridge since he was a child in Burnaby and his family used to drive there, said neighbourhood theatres do better than giant downtown multiplexes at bringing people from particular areas of town together.

"Movie theatres outside city centres or places like Silver City have a real convivial feel - you meet people you know there; you meet your neighbours.

"In this fragmented world where we often don't know who lives three doors down from us, we can't afford to lose all these opportunities for building community."

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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