Goodbye, ByTowne: Ottawa independent theatre shutting down Dec. 31

The ByTowne Cinema has announced plans to close permanently on Dec. 31, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

An institution in Ottawa’s independent cinema scene is shutting down at the end of the year in light of insurmountable challenges linked to the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to a statement posted this week.

The ByTowne Cinema announced its imminent closure in an emotional and grateful statement.

Owner Bruce White wrote that the theatre, a hub for independent and international films in Ottawa, has been “losing money every day since the pandemic hit.”

Read more: Will the 2nd coronavirus wave wipe away Canada’s movie theatres?

While theatres in Ottawa are currently allowed to open under Ontario’s COVID-19 restrictions, local cinemas have gone through prolonged periods of shutdown since March, with limitations on how many people can be inside the venues at a time.

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That, combined with a general uncertainty around the safety of theatre-going in a pandemic, contributed to the shutdown, the owner wrote.

“The ByTowne has a fantastic customer base, but many ByTowners just aren’t coming these days. And I don’t blame them: our staff have done an amazing job with COVID protocols that keep customers as safe as possible, but everyone’s risk assessment is personal, and specific to their circumstances,” White said.

“Many just don’t want to make a non-essential trip to a cinema.”

Read more: Movie theatres are starting to reopen — but are they safe?

Compounding the ByTowne’s problems was a lack of films coming from distributors.

Most film companies have had to adapt their distribution plans amid the pandemic, with some delaying movie releases or sending them directly to streaming services. Warner Bros. announced on Thursday it would release its entire 2021 lineup on HBO Max at the same time films came out in theatres in the U.S.

White wrote that the ByTowne was no longer in a position to hold out for a return to “normal” movie-going.

“Normal film distribution, normal cinema operations, and normal moviegoing are all waiting for a widely available coronavirus vaccine. And that, realistically, is many months away. Perhaps more than a year.”

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White also cited a lack of a succession plan as a contributing factor to the closure. He said there could be an eventual “ByTowne 2.0” someday, if a buyer shows interest.

White also pushed aside any expectation of charity from the ByTowne’s loyal audience.

“I know there are some of you who are willing to donate or loan money – anything to save the ByTowne. I’ve been so grateful for the kind messages and supportive purchases since March. If the pandemic has done anything positive, it’s shown me the deep affection that you have for the cinema we built together,” he wrote.

“But it’s a business, and the business model just isn’t working now.”

Still, news of the impending closure prompted an outpouring of memories and melancholy on social media as fans of the ByTowne shared some of their favourite times spent in the theatre.

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The Mayfair Theatre, the only other major indy cinema in the capital, said on Twitter it was a “sad day for independent cinema fans in Ottawa.”

The 650-seat Rideau Street theatre first opened in 1947 as the Nelson cinema, then with room for nearly 1,000 patrons, according to a history on the theatre’s site.

Famous Players leased the theatre for nearly 40 years. White took over operations in 1988, picking up the mantle of independent programming from the nearby Towne Cinema.

In a closing message, White encouraged any forlorn film lovers to send monetary donations to a staff appreciation fund to support the ByTowne’s 15 employees in their transitions during the holiday season.

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He also encouraged his audience to continue supporting independent and in-person theatres as much as possible.

“Support the in-cinema experience in any way that you can. When post-pandemic life improves, attend any cinema, see any movie. Take chances; take friends; take a night off from Netflix,” he wrote.

“I wish things could be different. My heartfelt thanks to you all.”

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