Culture | Ex-cinema Ex-centris

Curtains to close on Montreal’s art house theatre; a blow to the alternative film community

The Ex-Centris Cinema, one of the hippest art house theatres in Montreal, has unfortunately decided to stop showing films as of March. The Ex-Centris has been a haven for Indie film enthusiasts since 1999, providing an assortment of experimental films that are otherwise unavailable in larger theatres. Despite its popularity as a theatre, the Ex-Centris has chosen to use its space for other types of multimedia, such as dance and performance art.

I visited a few of my film professors to get their take on the end of the Ex-Centris. I was particularly curious to see if they feel art cinema still generates enough interest to gain a substantial fan base. I sat down with Professor Derek Nystrom, who is distraught at the loss of his favourite theatre, and Professor Michael Crochetière, a Canadian filmmaker as well as a member of the McGill staff. Both share a similar sentiment about alternative cinema: though never as popular as its reigning counterpart, Hollywood, it is an essential force in shaping the cultural terrain.

As a student with a budding interest in film, I can understand how alternative film may not be appealing to everyone. They’re what Crochetière politely calls, “an acquired taste.” Unlike conventional narrative cinema, which allows us to easily read the elements of a movie, experimental film stubbornly refuses to be as straightforward. And without any background knowledge of film theory, some experimental cinema can be virtually inaccessible.

However, these films often provide a more compelling perspective than the formulaic crowd-pleasers, and rarely shy away from controversial subject matter. And because film is such an excellent medium for social and political exchange, maintaining marginalized voices ensures a healthy dose of counter-cultural critique. Unfortunately, the dominion of mainstream cinema frequently works to relegate alternative viewpoints to the fringes of popular culture. The key to sustaining unconventional film is allowing for maximum exposure. And small venues like the Ex-Centris play a critical role in maintaining its cultural viability.

However, as Nystrom reminded me, “Art cinema rarely succeeds as a business model. It’s forced to rely on its patrons to keep its doors open.” Other small theatres are feeling the economic pinch and risk losing business to their larger competitors. Cinéma du Parc, a student favourite for its friendly discount, was forced to temporarily close a few years ago. Though they are back in business, their movie selection is growing increasingly mainstream. While this move may be financially necessary, it seems absurd for these small theatres to show conventional films given their main appeal as an alternative cinematic experience.

The delicate balance of revenue and creative freedom dominates the motion picture industry, as filmmakers and theatres alike must pander to the demands of the market. Unfortunately, this often leaves alternative films in the dust. As an independent Canadian filmmaker, Crochetière is painfully aware of this fact. He tells me, “Even if you look for a Canadian film at Blockbuster, you have to look for it in the foreign film section. It’s quite ironic.”

For local filmmakers in particular, the end of the Ex-Centris is a dramatic loss as it is one of the few theatres that screen amateur films. Without the help of art house cinemas, aspiring artists have little hope of achieving a theatrical release of their work. In a city that is overflowing with creativity, it would be a shame to lose such talent.

Montreal film lovers are hoping that the president of the Ex-Centris, Daniel Langlois, will change his decision to cease film screenings. The Facebook group “Sauvons le cinéma à l’Ex-Centris” has garnered well over 6,000 members, proving a significant protest to the loss of the theatre. Unless Langlois changes his mind, the Montreal film community – and the social and political dialogue it fosters – will have to find refuge elsewhere.