Culture | Making a scene

Exploring Montreal's independent cinemas

As commercial cinemas narrow the diversity of their programming and boost ticket prices, cinephiles might find themselves seeking new venues to explore independent film. Luckily, Montreal has a vibrant, albeit relatively unexplored, independent cinema scene. Mainstays Cinema Beaubien, Cinema Excentris, and Cinema du Parc, each with different but overlapping programming, provide ample offerings for the film-hungry. Montreal’s independent cinemas have common features setting them apart from commercial theatres. First and foremost, their mandate is to present works produced outside the major film studios, often including international selections. Projections generally avoid the inclusion of advertisements, and the lobbies are free of arcade games. Traditionally, Montreal’s independent cinemas have shunned concession sales, in an effort to maintain focus on the films. Yet independent cinemas have recently struggled to remain self-sufficient, and the need for extra revenue has forced them to install concession counters. After recent hard times, things are looking up for Montreal’s independent cinemas. While the Excentris relies partly on subsidies, both Beaubien and the Cinema du Parc manage to remain self-sufficient through ticket and concession sales.

Cinema Beaubien’s mandate is to present films in French, both from Quebec and France. Alongside its independent programming, Beaubien also includes commercial films from Quebec. Unfortunately, the Beaubien does not screen films with English subtitles, limiting their clientele to those who speak fluent French.

Cinema Beaubien first opened in 1937 at its current location. In 2001, budget cuts that threatened to close the theatre led to protests by local residents. The Corporation du cinéma Beaubien was created the same year in a collective effort to keep the cinema in business. Beaubien director Mario Fortin describes the theatre as the only “neighbourhood cinema” in the city, stressing the importance of its interaction with the immediate community surrounding it. Indeed, a quarter of the Beaubien’s clientele comes from the Rosemont-Petite Patrie area. The Beaubien’s mission statement emphasizes the good it does for local business, attracting nearby residents as well as other Montrealers to the area. The Cinema Beaubien hosts many community activities, including Festival Vues d’Afrique and the Festival des films d’enfants. Cinema Beaubien’s community focus also extends to their labour relations. Its employee policies meet high standards; Cinema Beaubien workers are syndicated, and award scholarships to its student employees. The concession stand features reasonably sized and priced popcorn as well as free trade chocolate and coffee, in line with their “quality before marketing” philosophy. Such a policy has yielded good results for the Beaubien, allowing the cinema to become self-sufficient in recent years.

Cinema Excentris is centred on its love of innovation in film. Groundbreaking and creatively daring works, both local and international, are favoured in the selection process. Excentris prioritizes films that are “inaccessible through the commercial offerings of other cinemas,” according to their website, apparently making this theatre “the only alternative to Montreal’s network of commercial distribution.” Its diverse offerings allow Excentris to bridge the gap between the Beaubien’s French language focus and the Cinema du Parc’s international outlook. Excentris presents all films in their original format, with subtitles always in French. Cinema Excentris, like Cinema Beaubien, prides itself on its position within the community, regularly welcoming festivals and community events. The cinema frequently hosts the Ciné-club in association with the City of Montreal and the Ministry of Culture, presenting free Quebecois films to senior citizens in an effort to offer an exploration of topics that relate to their lives. Often inviting the film’s director to take part in the occasion, Excentris considers the Ciné-club an important part of its overall mission to bring people closer to the creative processes involved in making movies.

Cinema du Parc’s mandate sweeps wider that both the Beaubien and Excentris. Its aim consists mostly of presenting films considered artistically significant. Du Parc probably offers the most varied selection, ranging from big names such as Wes Anderson and Christopher Nolan to international independent films. Their selection process is quite hands-on, as they investigate international offerings independently instead of relying on distributors. Owner Roland Smith travels the world, attending film festivals in an effort to select what he considers the most important current works. The cinema also releases films on its own, such as current We Are Legion: The Rise of the Hacktivists. Along with new releases, the Parc also has a retrospective each month, often focusing either on a specific period, topic, or filmmaker, such as ongoing “The Complete Woody Allen.”

Sadly, many of the retrospectives’ films are presented in digital format rather than the original 35 mm. Struggling against limited availability, Cinema du Parc tries to always present the original film versions. This means projecting films in their original language with subtitles when needed. A good proportion of their clientele consists of students and seniors, both anglophone and francophone. Many patrons are devoted cinephiles, either studying or working in cinema. Du Parc’s extensive presentation of films on cultural topics as well as established classics tends to attract a wide clientele interested in the arts in general.

Previously, the CineRobo-theque offered one of the only chances to watch original 35 mm films. The CineRobotheque closed this September due to federal budget cuts, but titles remain available for viewing by the public. These free viewings are set up by appointment at the Montreal National Film Board headquarters on Côte-de-Liesse. Some titles are available via or for purchase in digital format or on DVD. Their website is definitely worth a visit as it is replete with a wide selection of footage available for online viewing.

The shutdown of the CineRobotheque as well as the recently precarious position of other independent cinemas is a disquieting indication of mainstream cinemas’ market takeover. Yet the past few years have seen a swell in Montreal independent cinemas’ success, indicating a renewed interest in the more diverse and reasonably priced selections these community-oriented theatres have to offer.

Cinema Excentris and Cinema du Parc offer student prices, with tickets coming in at $8.50 and $8, respectively. Theatregoers will have to pay the full $11.75 at Cinema Beaubien.

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