Princess Street theatre to close

Ninety-year-old downtown cinema will move to larger uptown location this year

Princess Street in the 1960s.
Princess Street in the 1960s.
Empire Theatres bought the Princess Street location in 2005.
Empire Theatres bought the Princess Street location in 2005.
Screening Room owner Wendy Hout says she has no plans to take over the Capitol 7 Theatre.
Screening Room owner Wendy Hout says she has no plans to take over the Capitol 7 Theatre.

Gone are the days of cheap Tuesdays at the downtown theatre.

Empire Theatres announced the closing of Capitol 7 cinema on Princess Street last month.

After Empire finds a buyer for the seven-screen theatre, the company will move its operations into a new 10-screen megaplex at Division Street and Dalton Avenue, near Highway 401.

The Capitol 7 building has been a mecca for mainstream moviegoers in Kingston for more than 90 years. Empire bought the theatres in 2005 from Famous Players, who purchased the site shortly after it was built around 1920.

Students get a discount of over 30 per cent when they show their student card at the theatre.

The new tenant at the Princess Street location won’t be able to screen movies. A clause in Empire’s sales contract negates any opportunity for competing interests. “It’ll be sold to somebody that will not operate it as a movie theatre,” said Dean Leland, vice-president media and studio relations at Empire Theatres.

According to the records of the City of Kingston Heritage Committee, the Capitol 7 building isn’t a heritage site. But the cinema is a landmark in a long legacy of theatres on Princess Street downtown.

In the 1940s, buildings that currently operate as James Red Furniture Kingston store, the Trailhead building, Stages nightclub and Ale House were all one-screen theatres.

When Empire’s Capitol 7 theatre closes, the Screening Room will be the only movie theatre in the downtown area.

“I know that there’s a large amount of people in Kingston who live downtown, work downtown and go to school downtown and going to the new Empire location or going to the Cineplex is just too far to travel,” Screening Room owner Wendy Huot, said.

“I don’t have a car, and not having that multiplex downtown is a bit of a problem if you want to see a studio Hollywood film.” The two-screen Screening Room is known for stocking alternative flicks, making it a favourite for indie-lovers and regional-film junkies. Its 89- and 56-seat theatres keep things intimate compared to Capitol 7, which houses hundreds of seats. “I anticipate it’ll be an increase in business for us, which is good,” Huot said. “But I do have a worry or concern that it redefines the Screening Room’s niche in Kingston.”

Huot said she isn’t ready to take on the hole Empire Theatre is leaving behind.

“I enjoy going to the Empire Theatre and I enjoy seeing movies that are big spectacle films,” Huot said. “But we’re not really the right venue for seeing really big movies.

“The Screening Room isn’t really big enough to fill the gap that’s left. I’m not planning to start playing really mainstream content to take its place just because I know that’s not our strength.”

Huot noted the potential for another movie theatre to occupy the downtown landscape.

“With the Empire leaving the downtown it leaves an opportunity or a market for another movie theatre that plays new Hollywood films,” she said, adding that several people have asked her whether she’ll consider taking over Capitol 7.

“Of course I won’t because I don’t have that much money,” she said. “But I’ve heard people talk about if there’s a way we can save it or if it could continue to operate as a movie theatre under new ownership.”

“It probably does mean that it’ll make it easier for the Screening Room to get the local rights to play certain films,” Huot said, adding that both the new David Cronenberg film, A Dangerous Method, and the Roman Polanski comedic-drama Carnage — which are currently running at Capitol 7 — are examples of films that she’d like to screen.

“It might make it easier for us to play the kind of films that are nominated for Oscars.”

Empire’s closing leaves organizers of the annual Kingston Canadian Film Festival (KCFF) wondering where they’ll be housing the week-long event in 2013.

Launched in 2001 at the Screening Room, KCFF expanded to use Capitol 7 theatres a year later, festival chair Blaine Allan said.

Allan, also a professor in the film and media department, said he’s concerned the annual festival will suffer from the cinema’s closing.

"We tried to keep it downtown as much as possible,” he said. “I don’t know that once it closes that there will be enough spaces downtown to accommodate all that the festival does and wants to do.”

KCFF 2012 will use both Capitol 7 and the Screening Room theatres when the festival runs in March.

“Movie theatres are characteristically part of the downtown landscape,” Allan said. “This [closing of Capitol 7] means that the last one will be gone, the last major theatre of any historic record.”

Under the ownership of Famous Players, the site was gradually revamped from a single-screen theatre to a seven-screen multiplex in the early 1990s.

In fall 2011, Empire upgraded the theatre from 35-mm film to a completely digital operation — no classical film is stored on site anymore, with modern movies kept on a hard drive.

“[The theatre] has clearly served the people who live downtown very well, for its convenience and for being within walking distance,” Allan said.

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