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B.C. entertainment scene survives four years after COVID-19 shock

Venues were abruptly forced to close four years ago this week
Vancouver Fringe Festival Society executive director Duncan Watts-Grant says his festival has launched a fund-raising campaign

Before COVID-19 descended in mid-March four years ago, Vancouver's entertainment scene was thriving.

Health regulations then forced venues to close.

Some festivals faced near-death experiences while others have been slowly creeping back to what they would consider normalcy.

The Vancouver Fringe Festival today announced it plans to cut back its September festival by about one-third and has launched an “urgent $80,000 fundraising campaign to maintain [the festival]” and stabilize its financial situation.  

While the Fringe festival is hurting, other entertainment organizations that have grown to be larger than they were in 2019.

The Vancouver Opera and the BC Lions, for example, have reported much stronger attendance than pre-pandemic.

The pandemic affected how Vancouverites view entertainment options.

Some may have simply got out of the habit of attending in-person entertainment or have found that they prefer to stream entertainment at home.

The higher cost of living has also crimped budgets.

While Canadian inflation slowed to 2.9 per cent year-over-year in January, down from a peak of 8.1 per cent in June 2022, many British Columbians are feeling the pinch, and are less able to pay for in-person entertainment.

Others, however, will go into debt and pay dearly to see their favourite artists, Vancouver Ticket and Tour owner Kingsley Bailey told BIV.

He has seen buyers shell out up to $10,000 per ticket to see Taylor Swift, $2,200 to see the Rolling Stones and $1,500 to see Pink, he said.

"Tickets for when Lionel Messi is coming [with Inter Miami to play the Vancouver Whitecaps on May 25] are selling for $1,600, and this is the MLS," Bailey said.

"People are starved for entertainment."

He said there should be more transparency on where the Whitecaps-Inter Miami tickets are coming from because it is possible that the sports team is scalping its own tickets.

"You've got the moniker that they use, the words 'verified reseller,' but that could mean anything," Bailey said.

The Whitecaps told BIV that the team does not scalp its own tickets and that season tickets are available. Those packages include the May 25 game and are price-adjusted to account for the fact that the team has already played one home game in its 2024 season.

Comedy shows are popular, and happen frequently at small venues, such as Comedy After Dark, at 117 West Pender Street, Bailey said.

Bailey added that he was surprised to hear earlier this month that Montreal's Just For Laughs comedy festival cancelled its 2024 run, with the organization falling into creditor protection.

He suggested that the festival's managers could likely have better managed finances because comedy should be profitable.

"The capital outlay to do something like that is not very much," Bailey said. "You just need microphones. There's someone doing stand-up, you give them five minutes and then the next guy comes on."

He added that comedians tend to promote their own shows, which also helps organizers.

Vancouver's Just For Laughs comedy festival took place Feb. 15 to 24, and its website says "see you in 2025.”

No one at the festival responded to BIV's request for comment, and Bailey said that he has not yet heard that the festival has cancelled 2025 programming.

Vancouver festivals evolve to post-pandemic life

Despite the Vancouver's Fringe Festival’s ominous news this morning, hinting that its future could be in jeopardy, the festival did not do that badly this year, its executive director Duncan Watts-Grant told BIV.

"Pre pandemic, we would have probably had around 40,000 to 45,000 tickets sold," he told BIV. "In 2023, we had about 22,000 tickets sold."

While that figure was below what he expected before the festival, he said one silver lining is that the festival had 11,000 unique attendees, which was more than the 9,000 unique attendees he expected.

Canadian Fringe Festivals provide all ticket profit to the artists, he explained. Countrywide, that translated into $3.2 million in box-office revenue to artists in 23 cities.

Other festivals are also smaller than they once were.

The Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) pre-pandemic welcomed about 125,000 people during its 16-day run. Last year, executive director Kyle Fostner told BIV that his scaled-down 11-day festival was set to welcome fewer than 100,000 people.

The Vancouver Folk Music Festival had a roller-coaster year in 2023. It announced in early 2023 that it was cancelling its July event and that the festival might never return because its organizing society lacked resources.

That prompted new funders to come forward, and what organizers called a "huge outpouring" of support, which saved the festival.

The Vancouver International Jazz Festival (VIJF) scaled down in 2023, compared to its 2019 size, in part because it lost its longtime title sponsor.

VIJF executive director Nina Horvath told BIV that her June extravaganza had been sponsored for decades by the Toronto-Dominion Bank (TSX:TD), until last year, when the bank pulled its support and gave little rationale.

"Our festival this year will be the same size as 2023," she said.

"We continue to search for a new title sponsor. We've had some good progress, but it is going slowly."

The Arts Club Theatre Co.'s last complete season ended in August, and attracted 175,000 people, according to executive director Peter Cathie White. That was down by about 32 per cent from the approximately 210,000 people who went to Arts Club shows in its 2018-2019 season, which was the last full season before the pandemic.

The only arts organization executive who told BIV that season-ticket sales were up compared with 2019 was Vancouver Opera's general director Tom Wright, but he cautioned that the 2023-2024 season and the 2018-2019 season are not comparable.

Pre-pandemic, the Vancouver Opera had a 10-day festival of opera performances, whereas this 2023-2024 season the company has three distinct productions: The Magic Flute, Oct. 21 through 29; Don Pasquale, Feb 10 through 18; and Carmen, April 27 through May 5.

The recently wrapped-up Vancouver International Wine Festival (VIWF) has been returning to size after it cancelled one year: 2021.

Its 2020 event ended on March 1 of that year, just a few days before Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced B.C.’s first serious COVID-19 hospitalization – a woman in her 80s at Vancouver General Hospital.

COVID-19 case counts were set to explode.

While a total of 13 people had been identified as infected by March 4, 2020, that number increased by 1,000, to 1,013, by the end of the month.

One of those cases, a man in his 80s, and a resident at North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley Care Centre, became the first person in Canada to die from the virus, on March 9, 2020.

Two days later, the World Health Organization officially labelled the health crisis as a pandemic.

Mid-march was also a time when business operations were disrupted. On what was a memorable day for many – Friday the 13th of March 2020 – many office managers suddenly told employees to start working from home, kickstarting a phenomenon lingers to the present day.

Henry issued an order on March 17, 2020, declaring that any establishment that could not meet the province's test for social distancing must close indefinitely. 

"Effective immediately, businesses with liquor primary licenses, such as bars, pubs and night clubs, must close,” she said, as part of an effort to limit St. Patrick’s Day revellers from spreading the virus. She also halted dine-in service at restaurants.

The VIWF’s return in May 2022 was deliberately smaller than its pre-pandemic festivals, with the number of tickets allotted for events at about 50 per cent of what would have been the case in 2019, to enable social distancing, VIWF executive director Harry Hertscheg told BIV.

Its April 2023 event was much larger than in 2022, and this year's extravaganza was about the same size as last year, with 147 participating wineries, compared with 162 participating wineries in the 2020 event.

“People are spending enormous amounts of money on going to see Taylor Swift, and they are travelling like crazy and seeing professional athletes,” Hertscheg said.

“Then they don’t have any money left for local groups and events. I'm hoping people will support their local events so we can have a strong culture.”

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