Box office hit: Capital Pop-Up Cinema celebrates 10 years in the Ottawa community

One of Capital Pop-Up Cinema’s recent screenings. Photo by Imogen Reid.

By Maureen McEwan

Capital Pop-Up Cinema has been bringing the silver screen to Ottawa audiences at outdoor venues for years. 

And it started with a showing of The Princess Bride in Hintonburg. 

Capital Pop-Up Cinema co-founders Mounir Khoury and Isobel Walker, a husband-and-wife duo, met in film school and share a passion for movies. 

In 2012, Walker received an inflatable outdoor movie screen for her birthday. When the weather warmed, friends and family gathered at Khoury and Walker’s home for movie nights. 

Later that year, they moved the screenings to a parking lot in Hintonburg, at the former SuzyQ Doughnuts location, Walker said. In the new outdoor space, the Kitchissippi community took notice, and Walker and Khoury realized there was business potential. 

And so Capital Pop-Up Cinema was formed: the co-founders researched film licensing and copyright and began paying for film rights ahead of their first official screening that season.   

“The very first movie that we ever did, the one we advertised, was The Princess Bride, and we filled the parking lot,” Walker said.

Hundreds attended the screening of the 1987 fantasy film: Kitchissippi locals watched from their balconies or brought furniture to sit on, which all suited the atmosphere, Walker said. 

“What we would say at the beginning of our show [was] ‘welcome to our proverbial living room. Get comfy and let’s hang out!’”

The outdoor movie nights drew more attention. Local businesses and business improvement areas (BIAs) reached out, eager to participate and collaborate.

Walker said one of the first Capital Pop-Up Cinema clients was the Sparks Street BIA, then the ByWard Market BIA and community, followed by the Wellington West BIA and others. 

“We don’t exist without the local businesses and the people that come,” Walker said. “The joy that we’re able to bring to everybody is only because of everybody.” 

Capital Pop-Up Cinema’s events are free to the public. Their goal is to support the local community (they encourage bringing your own food), to get people outside and to make movie-going inclusive and welcoming. 

“We believe, my husband and [I], that film should be accessible,” Walker said.

The cinema runs a concession stand which helps pay its staff, and its screening fees (typically sponsored by businesses or BIAs) go towards operational costs, like the film licences.

“It’s not like a money-making venture. It’s a complete passion project and side hustle,” said Walker, adding that she and Khoury have full-time jobs outside their cinema business.

Alina and Georgina, two Capital Pop-Up Cinema staff members who have worked with the company for five years. Photo by Imogen Reid.

Despite its success over the years, there was an intermission: Capital Pop-Up Cinema shut down for two years during the pandemic. Khoury and Walker packed their film equipment into storage, and the screenings were put on pause. 

But when requests flooded in for the cinema’s return, they started things up again this summer. 

“We realized that there’s no one else that does what we do, because we’re a total turnkey operation, and there was a void without us, which was a really humbling moment, but super exciting at the same time, right?” Walker said.

Moving forward, they hope to continue building the business. In the early days, there were three people on the team; today, there are 14.

“The plan, essentially, is to grow the team—and it’s been growing over the years, of course—in order for us to build two teams for next season.”

And the demand for the screenings is there.

“This year, we’re doing nine movies. Our busiest season, we did 23 movies,” Walker said. “I could easily book 30 plus movies in a season, which is from June to October, with no issue.”

Capital Pop-Up Cinema has run screenings across the city, from Westboro to Vanier. At a Dovercourt screening a few years ago, they saw their largest turnout: Walker said 2,000 attended, but it was an “outlier.” These days, the company sees an average audience of about 350-400 people.

They may run screenings in new areas in the future, but Walker said they are taking their time considering those plans.

“It’s just like a slow expansion,” she added.

In mid-August, Sister Act was screened in the Churchill Seniors Centre parking lot, sponsored by the Westboro Village BIA. 

This month, Isle of Dogs will be screened in Parkdale Park Sept. 9. The screening is being co-sponsored by the Wellington West BIA and Global Pet Foods, Walker said, and there’s a fundraiser for rescued animals.

Over the last decade, the Capital Pop-Up Cinema team has been a part of its audience members’ different experiences—like first dates, walks down memory lane and new movie moments—which drives their work. 

“To be able to create memories for people is a really unique experience,” Walker said.

“Film is an amazing medium,” she added. “And that’s why we do it.” 

To learn more, visit capitalpopupcinema.com

…And for those who are curious, they show The Princess Bride every year to honour their flagship screening because it’s true film love — “you think this happens everyday?”

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