WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY: Calvin Cashen
Upon meeting Bernie Gurberg, you wouldn’t expect that he owns of one of Montreal’s quirkiest movie theatres. You wouldn’t expect this much buzz from its location, either. Located about a 10-minute walk from Namur metro station, Dollar Cinema is tucked away in the back of the quiet Decarie Square mall. After a brief walk up the mall’s front escalators, you’ll find the theatre in the back, marked with a modest, beige storefront that simply says “Cinéma.” You’ll also find Gurberg, either shooting the breeze with a friend or serving a lineup of customers that stretches out the door.
Gurberg will have been operating the theatre for 15 years this June. He’s there seven days a week, day and night. It may seem like an easy job from afar, but the commitment he puts into his work is impressive. His passion is just as palpable. Though he rarely has the time to catch a movie himself these days, his appreciation for film runs deep.
The theatre sprang from humble origins. Gurberg worked as a garment manufacturer before starting Dollar Cinema. In 2004, the space was converted from an old Cineplex theatre that had closed due to low ticket sales. “The mall owner said this space was available, so I went for it and opened Dollar Cinema,” says Gurberg.
The front of Dollar Cinema in Decarie Square mall.
What’s the big deal? Well, you can pay to watch a movie at Dollar Cinema with couch change— $2.50 to be exact. Gurberg makes it his mission to provide affordable entertainment to every one of his customers. He’s not in it for the money, anyway. He points out that the price of mainstream movie tickets has increased substantially over recent years, making it more and more difficult for ordinary families to go to the movies. Affordability is Gurberg’s main M.O. at Dollar Cinema.
It’s a mission that also extends to Gurberg’s politics. In 2017, he ran for mayor of Montreal as an independent candidate. Using Dollar Cinema as a platform, Gurberg’s campaign was dedicated to eradicating Montreal’s frivolous over-spending habits. It’s a factor which, he says, contributes to the city’s high poverty rate. Although his campaign had little to no promotion behind it, other than an email list, Gurberg nonetheless saw it as an opportunity to amplify marginalized voices— and he ended up coming in fourth on a ballot of eight candidates.
A snapshot of Montreal’s last mayoral ballot.
“Thirty-four per cent of Montreal is living below the poverty line. I didn’t believe it,” says Gurberg. “The main part of my business is families with one job, four kids and expenses. Families with everyday troubles.”
Gurberg serving a line of eager customers.
There’s more to Dollar Cinema than just its affordable prices. Some come for Gurberg himself. Our interview was often interrupted by a moviegoer to request a ticket. Gurberg served them, cracked a joke or two, and returned to work.
All of Dollar Cinema screenings are planned with its customers in mind. “If there’s a movie out that’s the biggest watched thing, I might not want it or bother with it,” says Gurberg. That’s where the viewer comes in. He considers what’s going to pull in an audience.
“If there’s a movie that ordinary people won’t bother to see, I can still bring it in. A huge portion of my customers are movie buffs who want to catch independent films on a budget. I’m all about flexibility, but I consider the higher numbers. It’s up to the audience to decide.”
The movies screened at Dollar Cinema range from small-budget indie films to summer blockbusters. The selection of films rotates as newer, more in-demand pictures come out. Whatever’s popular with families stays. All of the films are collected on a calendar print-out and features a bit of something for everyone. Mary Poppins Returns and Ralph Breaks the Internet, for instance, have played at the theatre every day for the past month. More niche, adult-oriented films, such as Shoplifters and If Beale Street Could Talk, are relegated to weekend screenings.
The cost of screening a movie can range from $200 to $600, depending on the studio. “I pay for movies just as much as the big guys,” says Gurberg. “The most rewarding part is seeing families come to the cinema and have a good time.”
What makes the theatre truly special, aside from its family-first policy, is its not-for-profit business model. There are only a few full-time employees, Gurberg says. A lot of the heavy lifting is done by volunteers who make sure each showing goes off without a hitch. They do everything from maintaining a smooth workflow to making popcorn for customers.
Dollar Cinema offers candy, popcorn and drinks for a loonie.
Gurberg occupies his own unique place in Montreal’s film community. He spends his leisure time curating film festivals at Dollar Cinema, occasionally organizing fundraisers and hosting an annual Jewish Film Festival, the net proceeds of which go to Hope and Cope, a foundation for cancer awareness.
“We don’t accept tips for a few reasons,”says Gurberg. “I tell customers we have a donation cup. That’s how money adds up [for charity]. We continuously bring awareness to Hope and Cope, day after day. Half of it comes from me, and the rest comes from the customers. It adds up to thousands and thousands of dollars.”
Dollar Cinema customers feel more like family.
Though Gurberg loves his work, he admits that Dollar Cinema doesn’t exactly keep money in his pocket. “It gets tough. There’s no money in it, just enough to pay rent,” he says. But it’s worth it to him, he says, because being able to provide an affordable night out for everyday families is enough.
There are customers who almost literally grew up with Dollar Cinema. Gurberg recognizes the regulars. There’s a cult following, of sorts. Without any real marketing or promotion when the theatre first popped up, the audiences just kept growing and growing. Word of mouth is a powerful thing.