‘A weird, uncanny thing’: Wendy Huot talks The Screening Room going dark during quarantine

Indie theatre owner discusses business amidst COVID-19

The Screening Room resumed business in July.
Wendy Huot was fulfilling a life-long dream when she bought the popular indie theatre, The Screening Room. Now, in the face of the pandemic, it faces its greatest challenge.
In an interview with The Journal, Huot talked about her love of movies, why buying The Screening Room was a dream come true, and measures she and her staff have taken to improve the theatre and keep the public safe. 
“I’ve always been a film buff, and in particular, I liked watching movies in the movie theatre,” Huot said. “When I was working at the library I had a bit of a daydream about starting my own movie theatre.”
Huot moved to Kingston in 2006 and worked as a librarian for five years until the previous owner of The Screening Room put the property up for sale. 
“As soon as I saw the opportunity I was like, ‘this is my fate’ and I jumped at the chance,” Huot said with a laugh. “I’ve been doing this […] nine years.”
In all that time, the theatre has been running practically non-stop, closing only two days a year on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day—that is, until the pandemic forced Huot to close her doors to the public for about four and a half months. 
“When the pandemic first broke we shut down […] I was reading different sources online and I saw that this was going to be big so I did shut down the theatre a day before we were required to shut down by the government,” Huot said.
When quarantine measures went into effect the next day, Huot’s fear for the public’s safety was confirmed, but she was surprised by how long quarantine measures lasted. 
“When we closed our doors, I knew it could last for a while, but I didn’t think it would last that long […] part of the business of a movie theatre is you’re just open all the time, you’re always playing films, you’re always available to people through good weather and bad.”
Despite the quarantine being a sensible move, Huot described how wrong it felt to power down her projectors.  
“Up until the shutdown, it always felt weird to me whether it was a technical issue or some reason why we weren’t playing movies […] it felt viscerally wrong for me to see—the expression of having your screen go dark—to see the movie theatre in the evening not playing a movie was always a weird, uncanny thing.” 
One upside, she said, is that she used the four and a half months of quarantine to spruce up the theatre in several ways. 
“We’ve added some more décor to our lobby. We have almost like an art installation where we’ve put in some wood paneling, and we’ve installed this display of old laserdiscs, film books, and old 8-milimetre film projectors, and some other movie memorabilia,” Huot said.
Now that the theatre is up-and-running again at reduced capacity, Huot says the normal release schedule for new movies is out of whack. For example, the acclaimed French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire had just opened before quarantine, and when the theatre started operating again at the end July, they resumed screenings long after the film would’ve run its course. 
“The first few weeks of our reopening we were largely playing things that were actually more like spring films.” 
Some other examples are Emma, The Trip to Greece, and Booksellers—all spring releases that were pushed to the final weeks of summer. With those screenings over, Huot says there aren’t many new films to replace them. 
“You see it more obviously at the multiplexes. They have the film Tenet to play and not much else […] the studios and distributors just don’t want to release movies right now because they know not a lot of people are going to the movie theatre and so the potential to make money is very limited.”
While Tenet is still turning a profit for Warner Bros, it’s made substantially less money than Nolan’s past blockbusters. The director tested the waters on whether audiences would float the film through a pandemic. Now, other major studios, and Huot herself, view it as a bit of a failed experiment. 
According to Huot, the pandemic is posing an existential threat to big chain theatres. Despite this, she has faith that smaller independent theatres like The Screening Room will weather the storm thanks to local regulars who love movies and believe in the cultural significance of seeing them on the silver screen. 
Typically, The Screening Room shies away from blockbuster action movies like your tent-pole Marvel and Star Wars flicks because the audience for those films prefers to see them in IMAX. But with her eye on Tenet’’s performance at Cineplex, she plans to make an exception. 
“Normally, we’re more focused on character and story-driven films rather than big spectacle movies—superhero films or blockbuster spectacles get to play exclusively at the multiplexes first, and then we can only play them once the multiplexes are done showing them, but usually by the time they finish showing the film, the theatrical life of the movie has run out.” 
But with Tenet underperforming at the big theatres, Huot says she’ll play it as soon as it becomes available to her. She’s made other exceptions in the past like playing Wonder Woman after it finished in the multiplexes because 
positive word-of-mouth swept up non-DC fans and kept interest in the film alive long after its initial release. 
She expects there’ll be an audience for Tenet who may feel more comfortable seeing it at The Screening Room rather than making the trek out to the Cineplex on Gardiners Road. 
With studios holding on to their latest films, there’s nothing to replace Tenet, meaning it may be some time before The Screening Room can play it, but Huot still has some new character dramas and old cult classics to rely on. 
Although the pandemic might turn out to be a turning point in speeding up the death of big theatres, Huot is confident that public interest in independent theatres will remain alive. 
“I don’t think cinema will die, but in the long run I do see it becoming more and more of a niche experience.” 

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