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FOOTHILLS MAGAZINE: Big screens still work in small towns

Despite ongoing challenges facing the industry, two local theatres bring first-run movies to the Foothills.

From the preponderance of streaming services to restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, movie theatres have had a rough go of it lately.  

While many small towns have seen their theatres shuttered as a result, the Foothills region has two — Okotoks Cinemas and the Wales Theatre in High River — that are still going strong, offering first-run movies close to home and at a better price than the big guys to the north. 

Amber Wigg, general manager of Okotoks Cinemas, says with only two screens, she must be careful about which movies she chooses to bring to town. 

“I have to look at the demographics of Okotoks and look at the history of who comes to Okotoks Cinemas and consider movies that will bring the people of Okotoks to the cinema,” says Wigg, a minority owner who has been with the theatre for a dozen years. 

“The 18-to-35 (year-old) crowd doesn’t mind going into the big city and paying the big bucks, so we typically cater to families and seniors and the blockbuster movies. Anytime a Marvel movie comes out, we’re going to get that movie; anytime an animated film comes out, we’re going to get that animated film.” 

The Stockton Avenue theatre, which is still owned by many of the same people who pooled their money to open it back in 1996, is guided by a simple principle: bring in the movies that will prove to be the highest grossing. 

That’s not always as easy as it sounds as some titles aren’t initially available to smaller theatres while others mandate they remain on the screen for a specified amount of time, sometimes as long as four weeks. 

“If people think we’re just picking and choosing, it’s not that simple,” says Wigg. “The distribution companies can be a real pain in the butt.” 

Wigg says the pandemic proved challenging as the sector was particularly hard hit, often being among the last to re-open when restrictions were eased, but she’s grateful that with an entirely part-time staff made up of students living at home, the economic fallout wasn’t as severe. 

The theatre got creative, selling popcorn on a drive-thru basis during the pandemic, and has continued to market that cinema staple to more than just movie goers. 

“COVID helped with one thing: people now realize they can come into the theatre to get popcorn to take home,” says Wigg. “We now get tons of customers who come in to just pick up popcorn to take it home.”  

The pandemic shutdown also allowed the theatre to launch a fundraising campaign to replace the original seats, which had seen a lot of butts over the previous quarter-century. Wigg says the project was done in the most cost-effective way possible as a church group helped rip out the old seats, a friend was instrumental in building the platform for the recliners and herself and her electrician husband installed all the new chairs. 

“In the middle of COVID, we realized that when we come out of this, it's do or die. We realized it was a choice between doing something drastic like new seats or just watch ourselves slowly decline to the point where we have to close our doors,” she says. 

“We've been lucky in that sense where I don’t see a significant decline (in customers) from pre-COVID because we took the drastic measure of fundraising. The new seats throughout the theatre are way better than the 25-year-old seats we had before. Now we can compete with those big, comfy seats in Calgary.” 

Wigg says the upgrades have definitely made a difference, attracting customers that might have otherwise gone to the city, who are now getting a similar experience but at a lower cost closer to home. 

The new-look theatre isn’t about to change the way it operates, however, opting for titles like the family-friendly Super Mario Bros. and the seniors-focused 80 for Brady instead of 18A fare such as Cocaine Bear

“That's typically not our demographic,” she says of the crowd that would buy tickets for a film like Cocaine Bear. “It’s a fun movie, but it’s not going to get us the numbers.” 

Wigg says despite the challenges over the past few years, the future is bright. 

“We still see that people want to come out and share movies together. It's really just a different experience to share a movie with people, so we think people are still going to come out and hope that distributors keep producing great movies so people will want to keep coming out. 

“The atmosphere, you can’t duplicate it at home, no matter how hard you try.” 

In High River, the historic Wales Theatre has been entertaining locals for almost a century. 

Owned by the Kidwai family for more than two decades, it has carved out a niche thanks to community support that runs deep. 

“We have a lot of people in the community who love the theatre and continue to support it. I think that’s the only way these small theatres can stay around. You need the community to care about it,” says Noor Kidwai, whose parents bought the theatre in 2000. 

His dad was running the bowling alley in town when the previous owners of the theatre reached out to see if he’d be interested in buying the venue that opened way back in 1927 as the Highwood Theatre. 

“My dad did such a good job at the bowling alley that the old owners came to him,” says Kidwai. “It’s such a historic site and they’ve always had owners that have taken a lot of care of the building, so they wanted to find someone they really trusted to do the same.  

“That's the kind of guy my dad is.” 

Despite all the challenges theatres, particularly small, independent ones, are facing these days, the single-screen Wales has persevered.  

Kidwai believes the theatre experience, the ability to see a movie on the big screen with the smell of fresh popcorn in the air, still proves enticing for a great many people.  

“One thing we have noticed is when you have good movies, people still want to come to the theatre. Top Gun was unbelievable, Elvis was another one, Spiderman was unbelievable,” Kidwai says. “A well-made movie with a good story, when you have that, it will do well. When they make good movies, people still come out and you can tell that people like coming to a theatre.” 

The Wales blends old with new as its ornate fixtures and free-standing balcony were around for the silent picture era, but it’s now equipped with all the latest digital equipment, including the ability to show 3D movies. 

Kidwai says he’s proud of the unique experience the Wales, which changed its name from Highwood in 1935 to honour the Prince of Wales, who homesteaded at nearby Longview, is able to provide. 

The theatre offers a variety of first-run titles as it tries to cater to a range of tastes, so if a flick catches your fancy, you’re best to hurry down as about 90 per cent of the movies only stick around for a week. 

“Over the years we’ve figured out that some movies just don’t hit in High River,” says Kidwai. “A horror movie doesn’t usually do very well here so we might end up skipping on a slasher film, but most family movies, most dramas that are good, even superhero movies, they can do well here.” 

He says working with distribution companies, the theatre gets some movies right away but might have to wait a couple of weeks for others, which he adds “doesn’t hurt us too much” being in a small town. 

The Wales also prides itself on affordability, offering discounted admission on Mondays and Tuesdays, which can sometimes make them the busiest nights of the week, and has removed the sticker shock from the concession counter. 

“We keep our prices reasonable,” says Kidwai. “Everyone who comes will mention how reasonable they are. We have people that come from Calgary for that reason.” 

Ted Murphy

About the Author: Ted Murphy

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