Highland Cinema Fights the Digital Age

By Bonnie Baker Cowan

There are no video games and no on-screen advertising at the Highlands Cinemas in Kinmount, Ontario.  The village, situated on the border of the Kawartha Lakes and Haliburton Highlands has a population of about 300, but the Highlands Cinemas, sitting on a hill just off highway 121, houses 550 movie goers in five separate theatres, and most nights during the summer, each venue is filled. No wonder. When a first-run movie opens in Toronto, it opens in Kinmount.

Keith Strata

Keith Stata, 64, explains that he is able to acquire first-run movies as easily as big players such as Silver City because “we make money for the film makers.” Stata began showing movies in his family woodshed on the same property at the age of six, a childhood initiative that has grown into 4000 square feet of theatre and the largest collection of motion picture memorabilia in Canada. His enterprising passion grew along with him and he gradually converted five rooms in his family home into theatres. In his construction job, he had accumulated theatre seats, equipment and memorabilia as small-town movie theatres closed throughout Canada and the U.S. As a result, patrons sit in plush, adjustable seats and enjoy the kitschy décor from old movie houses before the velvet curtains open and the movie starts.

With a small staff of six in the busy summer months, Keith runs a tight ship. He uses film projectors and starts every movie himself, a daunting task when two movies start within five minutes apart. The deal is cash only, but the prices are just as good as the movies. Children and seniors get in for $6 and adults for $8. Like most theatre owners, Stata makes his money on the popcorn and snack bar.

For cottage-going Zoomers, the experience at the Highlands Cinemas is easy on the budget, a great way to bond with grandchildren and just pure nostalgia. The museum, in walkways surrounding the theatres, houses letters from World War 1 heroes, 110 period-dressed movie mannequins, jukeboxes from the 50s, memorabilia from the 30s and 40s, even some from as far back as the 1800s, and an impressive collection of movie projectors and film equipment, including some belonging to Irving Berlin.

Sadly, Keith touches some of the projectors with missing parts. “People pull off arms and pieces on a whim,” he says, “So in some instances, like Irving Berlin’s stuff, I’ve had to put into glass cases.”

All of that may change in this rare gem, where Stata refuses to make money running on-screen ads and putting in video games. He explains that with the downloading of movies on the Internet, “Hollywood is trying to find a way to get the profits back. So they’re switching to digital.”

For major theatre owners, it’s not a big deal, but “for seasonal theatres like ours and drive-ins, it’s an expensive proposition,” he explains.  “A digital projector is expensive and only lasts about five years. A movie projector, the kind I use, only costs about $18,000 and lasts forever.”

Movie Memorabilia

He hopes to be able to open again next spring, but knows he will need to make changes to be able to make a profit when digital becomes a reality. “It costs $12,000 a year for electricity here and $1300 a month for insurance. Those are fixed costs, and that’s not counting about $25,000 on upkeep on the building,” he says. “Certainly, the worst-case scenario is to sell the whole thing or sell the museum collection.”

However, he has a game plan, which will involve raising the ticket prices to see if people will pay the price and maybe cut back to three theatres. Stata explains his frustration with people who bring their own food to the movies. “That’s where I make my money,” he says, “and my mother always taught me that you don’t go to a restaurant and take your own sandwich.”

Cottagers support Stata’s plan.  Sam and Marion Braddock of Oakville spend summers at their cottage on Gull Lake. “We enjoy going to movies there once a week and when our grandkids are here, it’s a perfect rainy day outing. The kids love the place, and I have to think it’s the simplicity,” says Sam. “We’d happily pay higher prices to keep the Highlands Cinema going.”

For more information, visit www.highlandscinemas.com