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How Carbon Arc Cinema is getting through the pandemic

The not-for-profit cinema has taken a hit from COVID-19, but is adapting for their biggest event of the year

3 min read
caption Carbon Arc Cinema has been hosting virtual screenings through the pandemic.
Natalie MacMillan

As a group that’s about bringing cinephiles and film lovers together, Carbon Arc has high hopes for its biggest event of the year: The Animation Festival of Halifax.

There have been no in-person shows for Carbon Arc Independent Cinema because of COVID-19 restrictions. The team decided to shut down and offer a few films online for streaming.

“We’re just going to keep showing films that people wouldn’t normally see. It’s the best we can do, and we’re doing it,” said Kenny Lewis, chair of the board of Carbon Arc.

Lewis is a volunteer who has always had a love for film. He says their goal through the last few months has been to get a platform ready so they can host the animation festival virtually in May. The cinema has hosted the festival in some capacity for the last decade.

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Companies like Cineplex, when closed for in-person screenings, are able to host virtual screenings on their own platforms. Small, independent cinemas like Carbon Arc rely on the film distributors’ platforms to host screenings. This poses a problem for some films shown in the upcoming festival, because these filmmakers might not have the means to get a distributor to buy the film.

“One of the things we’re working on is being able to stream these films on our own platforms, so that we can have a better variety of films,” said Lewis.

Carbon Arc shows documentary, independent and foreign language films, with an emphasis on Canadian filmmakers. These films were screened at the Museum of Natural History before the lockdown.

Lewis says Carbon Arc’s income has dropped “massively” since they made the move to online.

“We’ve scaled back, because a lot of our work is in-person. Everyone is a volunteer now,” he said.

This is partially because of competition with major streaming services such as Netflix, Prime Video and Crave.

‘Dire straits’

Nuria Bronfman, the executive director of the Movie Theatre Association of Canada, works with larger chains like Cineplex as well as independent theatres to ensure they are getting the support they need.

Bronfman said there is a cultural necessity for independent theatres, for both audiences and filmmakers.

“Not only are they, in a lot of smaller towns and cities, the cultural hub of that town,” she said. “They’re places that show Canadian films, and sometimes international films that people would not have access to otherwise.”

But independent theatres across Canada “are in dire straits,” Bronfman said. While some independent theatres have pivoted to streaming successfully, it isn’t a solution for everyone.

“It’s not going to replace the income of having people in their theatres, buying tickets, popcorn and Cokes,” she said.

Lewis said a virtual format is not viable long term for Carbon Arc. He’s looking forward to getting back to in-person screenings, as virtual screenings also miss out on the community aspect of films.

Lewis remembers the lively discussion that would take place between volunteers and viewers during the cleanup of the venue after showing a film. He says that now, some of their dedicated viewers will him send an email after attending a virtual screening. Still, that sense of community is hard to replicate online.

“Virtual screenings are not ideal, and they’re not a substitute,” said Lewis. “We’re really about sitting in a theatre, and having a conversation afterwards.”

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