All summer, Highlands Cinemas owner Keith Stata walks through the theatre he built to turn on projectors and bring the world of film to hundreds of patrons.
It is a journey with as much character as the building itself and the 72-year-old does it solo. He stops in at part of his cat sanctuary to manage air conditioning, pausing to pet some of his 42 felines surrounding the facility. There is another stop to check his facility’s security cameras. He pauses there to let out a werewolf call into a microphone, laughing as he delivers a scare to visitors surveying his hall of movie monsters.
Stata is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the five-screen Highlands Cinemas. The structure is filled to the brim with history, with a built-in museum featuring thousands of items highlighting film, popular culture and Stata himself. It’s world-famous, one-of-a-kind and has stayed situated in Kinmount, a village which has historically had a population of around 300 people.
The man paused when asked if anybody had ever called him crazy.
“I think everybody thinks I’m crazy,” Stata replied. “They’re entitled to.”
The theatre has run since 1979. Stata said he had a passion for films and initially sought to get into filmmaking, but went into construction to do something “practical.” That led to him building the cinema. Nestled in a forested area, the exterior was designed to resemble a house, which Stata said was needed to get a mortgage. What started as a one-screen theatre slowly expanded to five throughout the 80s and 90s.
Stata’s business partner, Roland Hamilton, credited the business success to that willingness to expand.
“There’s a lot of people’s effort that went into that building,” Hamilton said. “We’ve had challenges with the building department, but it’s always been fun to solve.”
Highlands Cinemas has achieved a lot of notoriety, with dozens of news articles over the years, tens of thousands of visitors and celebrity appearances. A documentary film about it is in the works. Well-wishes and compliments from the likes of the actor Rick Moranis and the Barenaked Ladies are preserved in the museum.
“The Highlands Cinemas is simply the coolest theatre in the world,” the famed Canadian rock band wrote with an autograph.
The museum is also filled with dozens of historic projectors dating back decades, which Stata said connects us to the past.
“I don’t look at them as rusty pieces of metal. I look at those as memories. You stop and think of all those machines, millions of people sat in the dark and had that special moment with that special movie,” Stata said.
But running a small-town movie theatre is difficult, Stata said. Although he and Hamilton utilize summer students, the workload is still heavy.
“The biggest problem is here we are and I’ve got less energy, less physical ability and still the same amount, if not more, work as when I was younger,” Stata said. “The maintenance on this building is massive.”
Adding to the workload is something even more important to Stata than the cinemas; his cat sanctuary. Stata has 42 cats across 11 custom houses, nestled together around the facility.
With local shelters overflowing, all of them were bound for death. Stata took them on as a last resort.
“I don’t look at animals or people any differently,” Stata said. “Just because the animal may not be as smart in our eyes as we think it is, maybe we’re not thinking right.”
He is outspoken that owning a cat is a lifelong responsibility. He believes there should be a licence to own a pet, with $1,000 fines for abandoning them.
“Stupid people,” he said. “I’ve had cats here because the boy had a girlfriend who was allergic to cats, dump the cat. Well, that’s not the way it works. You dump the girlfriend. You figure out what you’re going to do and you make it work.”
Looking after the animals is demanding, taking up 42 hours a week, Stata said. When it comes to succession planning, he said they come first.
“The cats are the priority. The business is secondary,” Stata said. “If I live long enough, maybe most of them will be gone … but there’s no guarantees. You get a one-way ticket, and nobody knows when you’re going to punch it.”
Whenever the day comes, Stata has entrusted the cats and the theatre to Hamilton, who has worked there since it opened.
“I want to run the theatre as a theatre,” Hamilton said. “When I go to leave it behind, I want to leave it with somebody who’s going to run it as a theatre. I don’t want to just see it all sold off, because then what was the point of what we did?”
But despite age and the occasional injury, Stata is still going strong, trekking to take care of movie-goers and felines alike. He even tries to take care of local wildlife, tossing out food for a neighbouring family of bears.
As the facility recognizes its 40th anniversary, Stata said he has had some discomfort with the praise heaped upon him.
“Getting a little much. A lot of people are coming up to me and saying, ‘thank you for building this place.’ It almost makes you think, ‘okay, am I going to die tomorrow or something’?”
But he is satisfied looking back at what he has accomplished with the Highlands Cinemas and the people it still brings in year after year.
“It’s gratifying it has done what it has done. It’s gratifying that people enjoy it. It’s gratifying that some people have been coming here for 34 years.”