'The Movie Man' Celebrates the Cinematic Marvel of Ontario Cottage Country

Directed by Matt Finlin

Photo: Scott Ramsay

BY Sarah BeaPublished Feb 28, 2024


In a loving tribute to Highlands Cinema, Matt Finlin's documentary The Movie Man celebrates the historic theatre and the entrepreneur who literally built it from the ground up. Bubbling out of the bush just north of Kinmount, ON, the monstrous multiplex is a Cronenbergian collection of buildings that looks more like a residential construction project gone awry than a popular moviegoing destination. Yet, the latter is true: the unlikely tourist attraction sells some 50,000 tickets over its May to October operating season each year (about 16 times the town's population).

The cinema's owner and operator, Keith Stata, is a lifer in the small Ontario town. Born in Kinmount in 1947, he always had a love of the movies, and, in his younger days, aspired to be a filmmaker. After a successful career in construction, he settled for a more achievable dream: if he couldn't dedicate his life to making movies, he could at least show them. And thus, Highlands Cinema was born.

Finlin does a fine job of capturing Stata's quirky charms, and he wrings an impressive amount of personality and beauty from the locations. Kinmount is cottage country, and that idyllic quality shines throughout. The viewer also gets a rare glimpse behind the curtain of running such a large operation in a small town, showing bizarre business practices that include telling teenage staff to clear the gravel parking lot of rocks, and feeding bears leftover popcorn as a preemptive measure to discourage ursine after-hours break-ins.

Highlands Cinema itself is breathtaking. Not only is it massive in size for a rural community (five screening rooms with 550 seats), but also it boasts an impressive assortment of movie-related displays, including the largest projector collection in Canada. The documentary is at its best when leaning into Stata's natural charisma and passion for preserving history.

The Movie Man is equal parts a celebration of this admittedly cool museum/cinema, and the story of financial struggles during the pandemic lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. Based on the footage and timeline in the documentary (and assuming Finlin is not gifted with precognition) this film began as a very different project — more of an exploration of the theatre's history and legacy, told alongside an intimate portrait of its creator. As a result of this shift, the documentary overall suffers from a tonal inconsistency, feeling unbalanced at times. It can feel like watching two incomplete documentaries cobbled together, rather than one coherent narrative.

There are also times where the doc verges on "old man yells at cloud" energy. Even those with a high tolerance for curmudgeons will find the 75-minute feature grating at times. Finlin attempts to romanticize Stata as an eccentric local legend whose idiosyncratic theatre holds the small community together, and for the most part this works — but there are several moments that could have been excised during the editing process to better build this narrative.

The over-reliance on footage of Stata is most glaring in the final third of the runtime, which dwells on the adversity he faced because of the COVID-19 lockdowns. Virtually everyone was a cranky, miserable loner during the pandemic (at least those who adhered to social distancing rules), but here, scenes of a depressed 70-something man bemoaning the future of cinema leaves the viewer with an unflattering portrait of the person who is supposed to be the film's champion.

There are also mild issues with the editing and scope, most likely due to the focal shift as the pandemic took priority. The Movie Man could have benefited from supplementary material, such as archival news stories, stories from past employees or cultural experts to smooth over some of the narrative gaps. That being said, 2020/2021 threw everyone a curveball, so it's understandable that Finlin's budget couldn’t properly accommodate such a change.

The Movie Man is a solid independent documentary that, despite some faults, remains a charming slice of Kawartha life. It's well shot, full of heart, and — most important of all — it captures Stata's love for the movies, and the community's love for Highlands Cinema.

The 2024 Kingston Canadian Film Festival runs from February 28 to March 3. Find information about screenings art the film's website.

(Mongrel Media)

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