Bye-Bye, ByTowne: Iconic indie theatre screen darkens after 32 years

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White and Cloutier considered splitting the 780-seat venue into two or three smaller cinemas, but ultimately decided against that route.

“I’m really glad we didn’t,” says White. “One of the charms of the place is that it is big and old and unique.”

On Christma Eve, the ByTowne Cinema, its seating capacity limited by public-health orders to just 50 people, screened what will possibly be the theatre’s last film, White Christmas. Photo by Bruce Deachman /Postmedia

Much of the ByTowne’s success had been a result of its eclectic schedule, although White downplays his own importance in creating the theatre’s programming. “You’re working with what’s possible,” he says, “and you’re working with a feedback loop based on your own audience experience. So if your audience has rewarded you by attending a Maggie Smith costume drama, the next time a distributor offers you a Maggie Smith costume drama, you’re likely to consider it favourably.

“It’s not rocket science,” he adds. “And then you throw into that a bit of curatorial stuff, where you think, ‘While I’m making a lot of money with a Maggie Smith movie, maybe I can slip in this movie that I saw at a festival three months ago and thought was really good, and otherwise might not have enough of a profile to be considered a box office hit.

“So yes, I was always intrigued with balancing the ByTowne’s schedule, and if I can take any credit, it would be about that balance.”

Jarring as the news of the theatre’s demise may be, it could, in one fashion or another, be premature. In the short term, the weeklong, 21-film “Best of the ByTowne” showcase that White had intended to screen between Christmas and New Year’s, a plan scuttled by Ontario’s current COVID lockdown, may be revived at the end of January. Scheduled films included Amélie, Babette’s Feast, Metropolis and Parasite, with Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads’ concert film that the ByTowne showed when it first opened on Oct. 1, 1988, bookending the theatre’s 32-year run.