A Cultural Institution in Crisis

Cinemathèque Québécoise at Risk of Bankruptcy

Photo Erin Sparks

The Cinémathèque québécoise is set to commemorate its 50th anniversary next year, but monetary problems may mean a significant reduction in its activities—or even bankruptcy—before it has the chance to celebrate.

As a not-for-profit, the centre relies on donations and subsidies for at least 60 per cent of its annual operating budget. The money made from the Cinémathèque’s activities is also reportedly irregular.

If the situation doesn’t change soon, the centre for everything cinema is looking at no more than six months of continued operation, according to Cinémathèque’s administration. The funds required to keep the Cinémathèque going have been estimated at between $1.2 and $1.5 million a year.

According to Le Devoir reporter Odile Tremblay, who has been following the Cinémathèque’s plight and broke the news of its financial troubles Feb. 27, it isn’t simply a matter of underfunding, but rather a series of interconnected issues that have gone neglected for decades.

“Just covering the bare minimum when it comes to salaries and operating costs is an enormous task,” reported Tremblay.

The Cinémathèque was founded in 1963 by a group of cinephiles that saw the need to preserve and showcase films made in the province.

What first started as a small archive and a series of screenings around Montreal is now a full-fledged cultural institution. The Cinémathèque was quickly admitted to the International Federation of Film Archives, and an amendment to the Cinema Act in 1978 established it as the province’s official agency for film preservation.

Since the ‘80s, the Cinémathèque consolidates all of its services into one building, on de Maisonneuve Blvd. E. near St. Denis St., which now hosts screenings, lectures and various film festivals.

In an article he wrote for Canadian Encyclopedia, former director Pierre Véronneau enumerated the Cinémathèque’s impressive collection. “Its collections include 48,000 films, 29,300 posters, 600,000 photographs and 14,500 scripts, as well as extensive archives, costumes, equipment and soundtracks,” he said.

“Its library on films and television is one of the most important in the world, with more than 46,000 books, over 100,000 newspaper clippings and 450 current periodicals.”

Although the current situation is particularly tough, this is not the first time the Cinémathèque has faced financial problems.

Last year, the Daniel Langlois Foundation decided to donate its entire collection to the Cinémathèque in a move that many saw as both a gift and a curse. The addition of about 2,600 audiovisual elements enriched the library’s collection, but also worsened the strain on upkeep costs.

In a political climate that is increasingly anti-culture on a federal level, relying on subsidies seems less and less feasible. According to Daniel Dubois of Québec Solidaire, the Cinémathèque is at the point of no return. He cites a lack of funding for the arts on the part of the provincial government as the main problem.

“The Cinémathèque’s mission is twofold: to preserve Quebec’s cultural heritage and to showcase it to its population. Without proper funding, where will films like [2012 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award nominee] Monsieur Lazhar be safeguarded?” he asked.

Dubois said the problem doesn’t lie with the Cinémathèque’s day-to-day activities, but rather in a provincial administration that expects the institution to fulfill its mandate without the required funds. In his opinion, the Cinémathèque should become a government-owned corporation so that enough taxpayer money could be allocated to the institution.

New technologies are also proving to be a challenge for this celluloid haven. Keeping up with changing formats in the digital age is costly and much of the equipment the Cinémathèque has is quickly becoming obsolete. This prevents the institution from staying on par with comparable film archives around the world, according to Tremblay.

When compared to similar institutions, like Paris’ Cinémathèque Nationale, the problems are evident.

“People are willing to take the metro to the edge of the city to go to [the Cinémathèque Nationale] because it is friendly, welcoming and engaging,” said Tremblay. Why shouldn’t a building located in the heart of Montreal be able to do the same?

For some, the institution’s tasks are simply too numerous for it to handle on its own; some have suggested associating with other cultural centers, such as the Bibliothèque Nationale or the Museum of Fine Arts, would help ease the burden.

Catherine Vien-Labeaume, press liaison at the Cinémathèque, seems to agree. “The Cinémathèque québécoise fulfills the functions of a government corporation but with the budget of a non-profit organization. Its financial framework is totally inadequate: we have to find 40 per cent or more of our revenues from other sources.

“The Cinémathèque is operating below the subsistence level and is no longer able to fulfill its dual mission of conserving Canadian audiovisual heritage and making it available to the public,” she continued. “The situation is urgent. We want to be considered a priority by decision-makers.”

To continue to neglect the challenges faced by the Cinémathèque québécoise may result in its ultimate disappearance. In the meantime, the credits are rolling on one of the city’s most valuable assets.