Reel to Reel
by Jane Ledwell
In the lobby of City Cinema, the perforated edges of a film glide through Derek Martin’s fingers. He is spooling film from the large reel used in the projector booth onto smaller reels, to be shipped by bus to its next showing. In 18 years running City Cinema, hundreds of films have passed through Derek’s fingers in this physical, painstaking process that is fast disappearing to digitization.
“What technology has lasted so long and seen so little change?” Derek asks as he works. “I remember the first image to appear on the screen here,” he recalls. “I spliced together trailers to test the equipment, and the first was The Fugitive, with Harrison Ford.
“What had been an empty room was a movie theatre.”
Before City Cinema, Derek worked in theatre, as an actor, producer, and director, running the Kings Playhouse for several summers and active with Theatre PEI. He says, “I knew the business of getting people to see a show—of getting them in and getting them out—so it was not a huge leap.”
The imaginative leap to create City Cinema was in fact a series of hops. “In 1991, I was artistic director of the Canada Games, and we decided to put together a film festival with a film from every province,” Derek says. This led to collaborating with Peter Richards, then co-ordinator of the Island Media Arts Co-op. Derek went to work at Peter’s alternative video rental store, Off the Wall, one night a week, which led to late-night conversations about films and art.
“There was a Sunday Cinema, one in a line of film societies on the Island, but it had seen a drop-off in audiences when it moved to Empire Theatres at the mall. We thought there was room for something downtown and something full-time,” Derek remembers. Eventually, Derek and Peter started The Buzz and City Cinema as fraternal-twin businesses that are now independent but share a continuing relationship.
Derek has loved movies since he was a kid taking in triple-bill matinees for 50 cents. “It’s organic for humans to love narrative. A film can be diverting and entertaining or a deep, cathartic emotional experience,” he says. “At a film, you can watch a $100 million production on the screen, but we’ve also had great movies here that cost $7,000 or less. I love variety in the arts, and movies have that variety.”
Derek says Charlottetown audiences have “really varied taste… There’s a lot of appeal for costume dramas, literary adaptations, and British, Australian, and Irish movies… Gritty independent films don’t tend to go over as well,” he says wryly.
“I can’t change people’s taste,” Derek says, “but I can show them films that introduce them to new things.” He chuckles, “I still haven’t found the perfect gateway art film.”
Films at the cinema are worth a risk. “Compared to the many ways you can spend an evening,” Derek says happily, “for people who want to do more than drink, for $10 a member can see a movie and have popcorn and juice.”
For Derek, a highlight of City Cinema is hosting special events. Many remember Dinner-and-a-Movie events that linked local restaurants with food-themed films. City Cinema has also hosted advocacy films, get-togethers for organizations, shows for newcomers, workshops for teachers’ conventions, a marriage proposal, and even a wedding.
The past 18 years, Derek says, have “seen the rise of Canadian and Maritime and PEI filmmaking,” Derek says, “with bigger themes and more interesting stories.” And, he suggests, “The definitive PEI movie has yet to be made.”
Another thrill Derek remembers was “the first time I saw one of my brothers’ names in the credits. Two of my brothers work in the film industry – but they had to leave the Island to do it.”
Derek has stayed, behind the projector at City Cinema. “People come from away and expect that every city will have a theatre like this one,” Derek says. Being able to see independent and art films is part of the contemporary urban experience, a part that Derek Martin—with City Cinema members and volunteers—has made happen for Charlottetown, reel by reel.