The writing’s on the sign.
“I’m going through changes,” reads the Yukon Theatre marquee on Wood Street, preceding a link to the Yukon Film Society’s website.
It’s the film society that’s been turning on the lights, cleaning carpets and getting the closed, aging theatre ready for a new life that could see it become an arts hub focused on film in Whitehorse’s downtown core.
“That’s the dream,” Andrew Connors, the society’s artistic director, said in an interview inside the theatre on Nov. 23, just after the Yukon government announced it is providing the society with $35,000 towards operations and renovations.
The money will see the space renovated “to act as a social hub for gatherings, film screenings and a space for lectures, performing arts, concerts and other cultural presentations.”
Short term plans
Connors’ cautious excitement for the project is evident when he talks of the plans. As he explains, the society has given itself five months to assess the long-term viability.
In that time, the society plans to host screenings in two-week blocks every couple of months beginning in December to gauge public interest, all while assessing the work that would need to be done to the building long-term.
The Yukon Theatre was one of two movie theatres in Whitehorse previously owned by Landmark. The theatres shut in 2020 due to COVID-19 and were not reopened, with Landmark eventually selling them.
While Connors is not revealing who the new owners are, he said efforts were underway before the sale to explore the possibility of the society operating the Yukon Theatre.
The society wasn’t in a position to buy the building when officials heard Landmark was selling, but talks with the eventual landlord led to the deal that could result in an 11-year lease if all goes well over the next five months.
Just getting ready for December screenings is taking some work.
Already carpets and chairs have been cleaned, lighting has been fixed and any broken chairs in Cinema 1 have been marked and will be taken out and replaced with functioning chairs from Cinema 2.
The short-term plans will see screenings limited to the 160-seat Cinema 1, though COVID-19 regulations may decrease the number of available seats further.
Work will also be done to the sound system.
“When I came in, I found that everything was wired to one bass in the front, so we’re going to put in proper speakers so it’s proper surround sound,” Connors said.
The society already knows the first films that will be screened when the doors open to the public — an in-person screening of the Yukon 48 Film Challenge.
“I think it’s an awesome way to kick off things you know, to bring the creative work of Yukoners to this screen as the first screening,” Connors said, again stressing the vision of the theatre as a creative local hub, screening and providing opportunities for local filmmakers and as a spot where locals can see those Hollywood blockbusters.
“The MO is a mix of Hollywood films and art house films on the same day,” he said, adding it’s not clear yet which bigger films might be coming to the Yukon Theatre screen, but work is underway to bring films like Spencer, The French Dispatch and possibly Dune.
As an independent non-profit theatre, there will be opportunities to bring a range of diverse voices to the screen, he said.
After close to a couple of years without a movie theatre in town, Connors has little doubt people want to come back to the cinema.
“It’s an experience you can’t get at home,” he said, highlighting movies as a social experience that is affordable.
Long term vision
Should longer-term plans proceed after March, Connors said the wall between Cinema 1 and 2 would be taken out, a larger screen put in along with a stage that would accommodate live performances and presentations as well.
An energy retrofit, improvements to make the building more accessible and new seating are all part of the long-term plans.
The work on those upgrades would ideally begin in May, possibly June, and would mean closing the theatre for six to eight months.
On the second floor of the building, which houses the projector room, a small office and the men’s washroom, Connors pointed out there is a lot of unused space that could be put to use. Possibilities to locate all washrooms to the main floor, provide workshop space, an office and other possibilities are all in the works.
“To be able to have workshops and tutorial space, small studio space that facilitates Yukoners in film and media production, and addressing that professional development and training and learning, it just is a natural fit,” Connors said.
Evan Stepanian, the society’s venue manager and producer with the Available Light Film Festival, said the building would be in use for a variety of purposes throughout the day, rather than simply being open for movie screenings in the evenings.
“Our long-term goals are really to diversify the space so that isn’t just operating you know, 5 (p.m.) to 10:30 (p.m.),” Stepanian said. “It’s going to be a facility that’s going to be running around the clock.”
Connors said it would seem from comments that many are pleased to learn of the plans. An Instagram post about the plans went “Yukon-viral” as Connors described, and a post on the Yukon Memes Facebook page made a joke about raccoons living in the aging building.
He noted most Yukoners can agree that Landmark didn’t keep up the building, but the film society is working hard to ensure it can become a go-to hub for film events.
“We want to have people to have positive and happy experiences in the theater,” he said.
Contact Stephanie Waddell at firstname.lastname@example.org