CAMPBELLFORD, ONTARIO—The private movie theatre had been hanging on by a thread for some time, and many other small towns had already lost their cinemas. But in 2009 when their theatre was threatened with closure, the people of Campbellford rallied around it, re-making it a co-operative owned by the people of the town, for the town.
While the area has become economically more dependent on tourists and retirees—both new people from the city and others, like my grandmother, returning to their hometown—Campbellford still acts as a central hub for the area with the local high school, the hospital and the movie theatre. If the theatre had closed, the town would have lost one of the only non-church gathering places, and watching a movie would have entailed an hour-long drive on dark highways to big box malls in the cities of Peterborough or Belleville. The theatre was an anchor for Campbellford’s tiny downtown, and its closure could have caused a ripple effect on other local businesses.
“A lot of small towns like this are losing their true character and story to big box stores, the so-called ‘shift forward,’" said Samantha Brown, a recent graduate of Campbellford District High School who works at a pub down the street from the theatre. “The movie theatre is a piece of Campbellford character. When there was a possibility of losing that, a bunch of us Campbellfordians felt as if it was not only a part of our town that could be lost, but also a part of ourselves,” she told The Dominion. “Especially to the younger folk. It might seem trivial, but that theatre was where most people who grew up here had their first dates, or first time staying out late, and for me it was my first concert too.”
Although farmer co-ops have a long history in this agricultural area, the idea of a co-operative movie theatre was initially a novel idea to residents. “When people think about co-ops, they often think of farming or housing or childcare. The idea of pooling our community resources and volunteer energy to save the local cinema wasn’t on the top of people’s minds,” says Russ Christianson, founding president of the Aron Theatre Co-op. But once the idea caught on, residents stepped up to the challenges to make it work.
Members of the co-op realized early on it would have to convert to costly digital technology to survive—an estimated $90,000 transition between a digital projector and digital sound upgrade, says Christianson. To make the transition, they were actually able to rely on one of the historical economic drivers of the area: the Trent River. When Mike Harris' provincial government forced the sale of the many publicly owned hydro-electric stations along the river, the people of Campbellford wisely invested the proceeds in a community foundation. A grant from this fund and another from the Ontario Trillium Foundation provided enough money to purchase a $74,000 digital projector and ensure the theatre's survival.
Beyond survival, Aron co-op members have bigger dreams. The co-op is beginning to serve as a community hub and cultural centre. The theatre is working with local schools to show films with educational content related to the curriculum, like The Hunger Games. When Bully was screened for high school students, the theatre was full of teenagers and you could have heard a pin drop, according to David Lyon, the Aron’s manager. A local retailer wanted to host a fundraiser to help buy a mammogram machine for Campbellford Hospital and decided to screen Magic Mike as a “ladies only” event. It was such a success that a second show was added.
Residents of Campbellford and the surrounding rural area have managed to translate their sense of ownership and personal investment in the theatre into actual ownership and investment, through starting the Aron co-operative. They are not only keeping the place running, they have also brought it into the digital era--important, according to Lyon, because most mainstream movies are no longer being released on film.
“These are the things little communities like this are doing, people giving back and making their place a better home. This is kind of the beginning to an inspirational story that is only getting better,” said Brown, who was inspired enough by the Aron co-op that she got all of her family to sign up as members. “It sounds cheesy perhaps, but this has even educated people into having hope that impossible, old, sold-out things can still survive. Our little Campbellford means something, and this shows that a bit.”
Megan Kinch is a movement journalist based in Toronto.