Matt Finlin was 11 when he first discovered Highlands Cinemas. His family had rented a cottage and his aunt and uncle took them in for a film.
“All of a sudden we’re driving up someone’s driveway … it almost looked like someone’s house. It was like ‘oh, is this a movie theatre?’ said Finlin. “Then you walk in the doors and it’s just this magical place.”
For the past three years, Finlin has been trying to capture some of that magic, and the magician behind it, Keith Stata, in a documentary.
The Movie Man will likely be completed in 2022.
He hopes to find interested investors who could help fund post-production and help bring the passion project to life.
“This is very much a passion project. It’s something that evolved from a weekend creative outlet into something that’s become a larger feature film,” he said.
Finlin is a partner in Door Knocker Media, a Toronto-based video production company that’s produced ads for Honda and RBC, music videos for the likes of Eddie Vedder and more.
He said he approached Stata to do a small video piece on the theatre, mentioning his childhood attachment to the space.
“When I got there, I realized there was a larger story to be told,” Finlin said.
That story has taken more than three years to tell.
“The larger story is that there’s not really any place like it in the world,” he said. With ancient projectors, halls of memorabilia and 45 cats living in handmade apartment-style accommodations, it’s a one-of-a kind operation. Finlin said he was surprised by secret passageways, hidden doors and Stata’s care of his animals (including a bear which has made itself at home at the back of his property).
For Finlin, Stata is a character intertwined with his theatre.
“Keith is the theatre as much as the theatre is Keith,” said Finlin. “They’re like this symbiotic relationship which is really interesting. Someone who’s born and raised in a town of 200 or so and decided to stay there, to create a magical place which drives the town.”
But does it get tiring, sharing the theatre’s stories? “No,” said Stata. “It’s kind of fun sometimes.”
That’s even after more than 40 hours of showcasing his theatre to Finlin and his team.
“He practically lived here,” Stata said. “I said to him ‘you realize I’ve almost gone through three dogs since you started this’!”
Stata doesn’t know how the documentary will end. After all, neither does Finlin.
That will depend on whether the theatre can open in 2022.
Stata’s magical place is currently shuttered, closed since 2019. He and his 46 cats haven’t welcomed the usual summer crowds. The future of the cinema is a bit uncertain.
He said it costs $75,000 to run each year. “In all reality we have to get back to some kind of normal,” he said. And that means both as far as COVID-19 and moviegoing habits. Stata said he’s seen other theatres in nearby regions suffer with mediocre ticket sales even since they were allowed to reopen with limited capacity.
For now, Stata’s been sorting through memorabilia, neatly organized across his property in 17 shipping containers, such as a collection of more than 1000 movie posters he’s been selling.
“It took me months to find enough time to go through this: they’re out of order, there are multiple copies,” he said, leafing through a pile of posters from the original Matrix movie, The Dark Knight; The Hulk (He recently sold a rare Revenge of the Jedi poster for $950).
Stata compares sorting through his posters to Finlin dealing with the hours of footage from the cinema.
“With that much footage he’s going to have a hell of a time editing it down,” Stata said.
Over the course of hours of interviews and stories about the theatre, Finlin said he views the cinema’s proprietor as a friend. As a documentarian, that makes producing the work a personal challenge.
“My version of the truth is becoming more awkward because I’ve gotten to know Keith very well. I have a very personal relationship with the theatre because it inspired me to make movies.”
Finlin said in the next few months he hopes to dive back into the Highland Cinema’s documentary. The goal is to have it all completed by the spring. All, that is, except the ending. That part of the script has yet to be written.