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Only a toonie to visit Tinseltown

by Kirsten Humbert March 10, 2015
Only a toonie to visit Tinseltown

Dollar Cinema’s founder keeps films accessible, affordable

The Dollar Cinema is the greatest place on Earth. At first glance, it’s just a second-run cinema in nearly abandoned Decarie Square mall. However, once you start going you become part of the family.

Bernie Gurberg is the owner and one of the few staff members of Dollar Cinema. He works seven days a week, charging $2.50 per flick (or $1 if you buy tickets in bulk). To run a cinema that you can pay for entirely in couch change must be a film buff’s passion project.

Bernie Gurberg’s provides an affordable movie-going experience and keeps patrons of the Dollar Cinema feeling more like family than customers. Photo by Andrej Ivanov.

But Gurberg hasn’t seen a movie since the original Taken was released. In fact, he only sees a movie about once every five years. So why does he persist in running a cinema with a business plan that would boggle an accountant’s mind?

He claims to be an “ordinary guy, just doing whatever I’m doing.” Our interview is interrupted by a customer requesting a medium popcorn. “No,” Gurberg responds with deadpan delivery, “I’m hungry.”

“We come here for [Gurberg] more than for the movies,” says Alex, a longtime patron, as he passes the counter with his wife, carrying snacks.

“It’s a family here,” Gurberg nods.

His main business is from families—“single moms with three kids,” in Gurberg’s words. Gurberg says that being able to provide a place where any family can afford to come and buy a snack for each kid is worth more than money to him.

“You need to be 13 to see this movie. Do you have ID?” Gurberg questions another passing customer—who, by the way, is clearly older than 13. With faked exasperation, the client responds, “You’ve known me since I was 13! I’m Don’s kid.” Dollar Cinema has been open for just over a decade now, so some of his youngest customers have grown up with Gurberg.

Another unusual feature of the cinema is the number of volunteers. Normally, a cinema does not qualify as the sort of not-for-profit initiative that would justify such a need. Gurberg doesn’t recruit volunteers either—from what this reporter can tell, they start coming for the movies and they just sort of stick around to help.

“[Gurberg]’s a good egg,” confides one of the volunteers, who wished to remain anonymous. He and his brother have been volunteering at Dollar Cinema for six years now. They do everything from painting and plumbing to repairing the popcorn machine. It’s also a common sight to see patrons pick up not only their own cups and wrappers, but those left behind by others as well.

This kindness does not go unreturned. On two occasions I’ve suggested that Bernie bring in a movie—and both times he’s obliged (Snowpiercer (2013) and The Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)). I’m not the only client to get the VIP treatment either. In fact, he recently helped one man with his marriage proposal by reserving the small cinema and playing their favourite movie (she said yes).

In addition to providing entertainment at more-than-affordable prices, Dollar Cinema adds to the cultural scene by hosting an annual Jewish Film Festival, various fundraisers, and bringing in movies that other cinemas won’t (or can’t) screen like The Interview (2014). In collaboration with Ginny, one of the volunteers, Gurberg is also interested in producing a Chinese Film Festival in the near future. The festival will feature a series that documents the life of Dr. Norman Bethune, a Canadian surgeon famous for his humanitarian efforts and for bringing Western medicine to rural China during World War II. Dr. Bethune’s statue can be found near the Sir George Williams campus of Concordia University, just opposite Guy metro.

Gurberg has always felt a special connection with Concordia students; when he first opened his doors on June 4, 2004, his first two clients were students of the university. Those two clients visit the cinema to this day.

As a parting gift, he tells me that anyone who comes to the cinema and mentions this article gets a free bag of popcorn. “What would you like me to put as the expiry date on this offer?” I question, expecting an answer like “one week” or “the month of March.” “Well, that’s the problem,” Bernie says grimly. “The offer expires in 5,000 years.”

The Dollar Cinema is located at 6900 Boulevard Décarie, Montreal. (514) 739-0536

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