Highlands Cinemas

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"It's not your average movie theatre"

Keith50,000 film fans are expected – A summer oasis for moviegoers


KINMOUNT, Ont.—On the border of the Kawarthas and the Haliburton Highlands, this village of 300 boasts an unusual demographic: More movie theatre seats than people. Highlands Cinemas, a 550-seat complex with five theatres showing first-run movies, has drawn customers from the surrounding area for more than two decades. This season — from May to Thanksgiving — 50,000 moviegoers are expected to enter Keith Stata’s home to enjoy the movie experience in the middle of cottage country. “It’s on the left as you go out of town, you can’t miss it,” said the clerk behind the counter of one of Kinmount’s two general stores. Truth is, it could be easily missed.

Hidden in a bit of bush, on the hill just outside the village limits, it looks like an average two-storey house. The only hint is a small marquee that’s largely obscured. Only when you step through the double-glass doors — where the garage should be — do you realize you’ve stepped into a celluloid oasis. “It’s not your average movie theatre, that’s for sure. My first reaction was: “It’s incredible,’ ” said Wesley Skakun, 41, of Vancouver as he lined up to buy popcorn — $4 for a decent sized combo — at the theatre during a recent visit. For many cottagers in the surrounding 80-kilometre radius, a visit to Stata’s theatre has become a summer tradition.

“We’ve got 12 grandchildren and every one of them prefers seeing a show at Highlands to going to a big city movie theatre,” said Ruby Wilkes, whose family has owned a cottage on a nearby lake for three generations. In Theatre 3, where Skanun and his nephew, Matt Adams, 11, were among 30 people who turned up to watch Jim Carey in Bruce Almighty, the air was an unusual aroma of popcorn and bug spray. The millions of mosquitoes that lurk in the bush surrounding the parking lot invade the theatres every time the doors open, so regulars know that a liberal dose of bug spray before you get out of the car is a good idea. “They’re deadly. The first time we came, the lineup was right around the parking lot, so we got eaten alive,” said Kellie Churko, 31, of nearby Haliburton.

It also seems no one is concerned about the other wildlife, which includes raccoons and a black bear with a fondness for popcorn, although a bat that found its way inside during the screening of the Blair Witch Project did cause at least one woman to run out in panic. Churko and her friends didn’t have to line up to buy their $7.50 ticket — Thursday is the quietest night of the week — but once school is out for the summer and the cottagers arrive in droves, it’s a different story, said Stata. “We get so many people that it’s unreal,” said Kinmount’s unlikely movie mogul. Stata started modestly in 1979 with a 58-seat theatre, “where the rec room should be,” in his newly built house. “No one came. People thought it was a just a TV in the basement because it was in a house,” said Stata, who as a 6-year-old got his start as a theatre operator in the family woodshed charging 2 cents a head. But gradually the word got out and, by the mid-1980s, Stata found himself turning away hundreds of movie patrons. That’s when Stata decided to expand and add a second screen, then a third, fourth and, by 1996, a fifth screen, in sizes comparable to those found in multiplex cinemas. As small movie theatres closed up across North America, Stata, who used to run a construction business, began picking up used equipment and projectors. In all, he has snapped up contents from 450 defunct cinemas including a “porn house” in Indiana, the International Cinema in Toronto and small town theatres across Canada, selecting the best for his theatres. The result of his labour of love is that each of his cinemas — the largest seats 200 — provides a plush movie-viewing experience. The large reupholstered seats, the thick velvet curtains and the ornate wall coverings take older patrons down memory lane and give the younger crowd a chance to experience bygone days. “Going to the movies used to be an event, so that’s what we’ve recreated here,” said Stata. Stata who runs from theatre to theatre to start each movie, uses movie projectors dating to the mid-1950s, which he swears are better than anything built today. “The picture is sharp, the colours true, and they don’t break down like the newer ones,” he said.

At first, movie distributors laughed at his ideas, but by the late ’80s, even though he couldn’t get first-run movies, he had made such a success of his business that they began to take him seriously and agreed to supply him with new releases. Meanwhile, his collection of movie paraphernalia had grown, so Stata added a movie museum to his house. It includes hundreds of movie projectors dating back more than a century, original movie posters, 5-cent ticket stubs and every day items from various decades all guarded by 110 mannequins dressed in period costume. Donna Stey, 35, has been going to Highlands Cinemas for more than 10 years and still remembers her first time in the doors. “I couldn’t believe what was in here, I was so amazed that I couldn’t stop looking,” she said. And that’s just what Stata hopes will keep happening.

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