After twenty years of uncertainty, Montreal’s Empress Theatre in NDG now appears to have a secure future.
Last year, a partnership called Cinema NDG and a group with competing development plans, the Empress Cultural Centre (ECC), both submitted projects to the borough of Côte-des-Neiges–Nôtre-Dâme-de-Grâce’s Appel à projet publique, which asked citizens to submit well-formed and self-financing plans for the future of the theatre. Then, a jury selected by the borough administration analyzed the two plans and selected that of Cinema NDG, presumably because it appeared more financially viable.
Last month, Cinema NDG received their final approval from the borough council, who unanimously approved their $12-million project to renovate and repurpose the venue.
The original neo-Egyptian style Empress building, which first opened to the public in 1927, was one of the most striking examples of ‘atmospheric’ style cinemas in Canada, and remains one of the last remaining venues of this sort in North America. The lavish art deco atmosphere, defined by a pastiche of ancient Egyptian-style motifs, has for the most part been erased by neglect and changing aesthetic tastes, although the original façade remains intact.
After going through many phases between 1927 and 1989, ranging from silent movies to vaudeville theatre to erotic films, plans to re-imagine the space as a first-run blockbuster cinema were ruined after a fire in 1992, leaving the Empress abandoned, until now.
Cinema NDG – which also re-established Cinema Beaubien in the Rosemont area – plans to install four movie screens on the upper floor, and to incorporate a commercial aspect that would see an artisanal brewery on the ground floor, as well as a bank around the rear side of the venue. While Elaine Ethier of Cinema NDG admitted that the commercial aspect was necessary due to the funds required to renovate the building, which has considerable heating and water damage issues, she assured The Daily that the cinema would by no means “be at the mercy” of these financial agents, and emphasized their promise to keep the façade of the building banner-free.
Cinema NDG’s bid has faced noticeable opposition over the past year. In particular, the ECC, among other community groups, claimed that Cinema NDG’s plan failed to sufficiently incorporate the community aspect to the space. The ECC’s plan was community-oriented and envisioned multiple uses, including a space for local theatre groups, as well as a partnership with the McGill Conservatory. In response to whether or not the introduction of these commercial aspects encroached upon the potential community benefits, Ethier reiterated why she believes no other plan managed to receive the green light. Not only would the multi-dimensional aspect of the ECC’s proposal be “very complicated to manage,” Ethier asserted, it would also fail to “render the cinema profitable in the long run.”
It is this emphasis on the long-run that Ethier and Cinema NDG must focus on, with a year to secure the funds in order to back their renovation plans. The key word that Ethier emphasized was “optimism;” she hopes that the construction will start by 2014. According to Ethier, the content will reflect the multicultural character of NDG. “I think it will be [fun] to go out and find films from all over and bring them to this neighborhood in their original language.” The challenge of sourcing and screening international cinema is made easier by the rapid digitalization of the film industry, which grants small cinemas access to cheaper digital copies of films and their subtitles. While there is concern about the lack of a community aspect in their plans, Cinema NDG’s plan to resurrect the cinema has conjured a great deal of excitement within the local community. The new Empress will rehabilitate a popular long-lost institution on the West side of the city, while raising the cultural value of the surrounding neighbourhood.