Kuujjuaq goes to the movies
Get your tickets and popcorn, it’s time for Scooby Doo
A young boy, still bundled in his green winter parka, presses himself into the back of his seat. Near his mouth he holds a fistful of popcorn. But he doesn’t eat a single kernel. He doesn’t even blink. Instead, his entire focus is on action star Vin Diesel as he speeds towards a burning building on the back of his roaring motorcycle.
But as Diesel nears the building, the boy turns away from the movie screen. He looks at his mom. He looks at his brother. He closes his eyes. At the last minute the boy forces his gaze back to the screen — just in time to see Diesel heroically leap over the exploding inferno. The boy cheers, sits back up in his seat and finally throws the waiting popcorn into his mouth.
Though the image of the wide-eyed moviegoer is a scene repeated a hundred times a day, in thousands of movie theatres across Canada, it’s a relatively new phenomenon in Nunavik.
On Oct. 16, the town of Kuujjuaq began using the new municipal centre’s auditorium to show movies on the (relatively) big screen. Now, six nights a week, from Monday to Friday, Kuujjuarmiut groove with Austin Powers, migrate south with woolly mammoths in Ice Age and even fight alongside Vin Diesel against evil Czech masterminds in XXX.
And they can do all this thanks to the vision of Kuujjuaq’s mayor and the hard work of two municipal employees who took on the challenge of starting up a movie theatre even though their only work-related experience was renting videos from the local Northern store.
Sitting in his office at the municipal centre, Mayor Michael Gordon says showing movies in the building’s auditorium was always a part of the “bigger” picture — no pun intended. From the moment municipal council secured funding for the building, Gordon envisioned a venue that would not only house the town’s municipal offices but could hold a wide variety of events from conferences (the town hosted the ICC as its inaugural conference in August) to rock concerts.
But the town was also constrained by limited funds. Gordon’s answer was to create one large room that could transform itself to fit any event — which explains why the auditorium was built with retractable seating, a raised stage and a drop-down movie screen.
Regular movies, Gordon admits, seemed like a good idea because they would generate a modest source of revenue for municipal council. Yet, more importantly, according to Gordon, the movie theatre fills a much-needed void in the community.
“We’ve got family oriented activities now,” he says. “Movies where the whole family can go for a night out. We didn’t have this on a regular basis before.”
Though Gordon may have been largely responsible for the idea, developing the movie theatre fell to Sammy Koneak, the municipality’s recreation director, and building manager Daniel Barrett.
In retrospect, you could joke that James Bond has had easier assignments — at least 007 has had some training ridding the world of super villains.
Koneak and Barrett went into this assignment blind. Neither of them had any idea how or where to get movies. Neither had ever managed ushers, ticket sellers or concession vendors. Neither had ever even stepped within 100 feet of a movie theatre projector — a machine teeming with so many knobs, clamps, whatchamahoos and thingamabobs it makes threading a sewing machine look easy.
But now, three weeks after the theatre’s opening, Barrett and Koneak sit in the projection room and shrug off all the work they’ve done to bring Kuujjuaq its first cinema.
Barrett cuts, splices and divides six 16-inch reels of Scooby Doo onto two 27-inch projector reels, and he chuckles when asked how he learned to work the projector.
“We figured it out,” Barrett says. “The guy who set this up he didn’t show me but he explained how it should be done.”
Until today, Koneak has been too busy with managerial odds and ends to master the mechanical beast. Over the past few months, he’s devoted most of his time toward gathering the staff and equipment necessary to bring the silver screen to Kuujjuaq.
First, he used the Internet to find film distributors in Montreal. He now deals directly with Paramount, Universal and Columbia Pictures, renting two first-run films a week. He typically pays a minimum of $150 per film loan, or if the film is popular, 35 per cent of the ticket sales.
Then, he had a Montreal-based purchaser who works for municipal council find all the theatre necessities — rolls of tickets, preview posters and, of course, an industrial-size popcorn machine.
Next, he hired and trained the theatre staff — ticket sellers, canteen workers, ushers and a projectionist.
Koneak laughs, remembering how little training the workers (projectionist excepted) had before they dealt with more than 300 customers who came to see Austin Powers 3 on the theatre’s opening night.
“They jumped right in just like us,” he says. “We told them, ‘You’re going to be positioned here and you’re going to be positioned there.’ We said, ‘Once they come, you stand here and check their tickets and you, well, you walk around and make sure no kids are running around. And if they do, well, stop them.’”
And now today, Koneak finally has the time to learn how to operate the projector himself. Barrett towers over Koneak, coaching him around the projector’s various knobs. Koneak hesitates briefly as he passes the film head through a particularly stubborn clamp.
“I’m pretty much learning as I go,” he says when the film refuses to slide in.
The statement could easily apply to both of them, to their staff and to the venture itself. There are still many kinks to work out, hoops to pass through.
Koneak is still learning what sort of movie schedule works best for Kuujjuaq. The theatre still does not have surround sound. Some patrons complain too many children are running around during shows.
But, with absolutely no experience between them, Barrett and Koneak have still managed to draw in an average of a 100 customers a night.
James Bond himself could hardly do better.