Like many entrepreneurs, Steve Koltai had to shut down his business when the pandemic hit. But unlike most businesses, Koltai was told he wouldn’t be getting any government help.
“Even though we pay our taxes and even though we’re part of the cultural scene in Montreal on the plateau, our main business is an adult movie theatre, and they’re not going to give funding for that,’’ says Koltai.
Koltai owns Cinéma L’Amour which has been showing adult films and organizing erotic evenings for 40 years on Saint-Laurent Boulevard. In Fall 2020, he was informed that the theatre fell into the same category as strip clubs or other businesses that offend public morality, making them ineligible for government grants.
“I’m just running a business. I know nothing about anything else except running my business. We were the pioneers of theatrical porn back in the seventies,‘’ says Koltai. ‘’We’re not a joke. We’re a family-run business and it’s been in the family for a long time.’’
Back in October, the provincial government created a financial relief program for small and medium-sized businesses (PAUPME) that comes in the form of loans up to $50,000. This type of financial assistance would have covered some of the cinema’s operational expenses such as the electricity or heat bill.
“I’m not in such a bad position, but it’s still not fun because the whole world is getting funding,’’ says Koltai. “I’ve paid my taxes for like 40 years and we’re getting nothing. I don’t see why we should be exempt from this.’’
Being excluded comes to no surprise in the eyes of Koltai because of the stigma attached to porn theatres.
“It’s so negative bullshit, you know. We have nice respectable clients, we’ve got couples that come in, professionals that come in,” adds Koltai.
According to economist Moshe Lander, during a crisis, the government faces a huge financial burden and will have to limit how much help they can provide. Even so, he does not agree that a business’s eligibility for government support programs should be based on morality.
“It’s a very fine line to walk,” says Lander. “They are as entitled to government support as any other business that pays taxes.’’
According to the Montreal Economic Institute (MEI), a long-standing principle in any democratic society affirms that any laws, regulations and government programs should be of general application and not based on random or subjective decisions.
‘’Whatever exception to this non-discriminatory approach should be as rare as possible and justifiable based on objective criteria,” says Michel Kelly-Gagnon, CEO of MEI. “This is the exact opposite of deliberately harming a particular otherwise legal industry merely because it does not correspond to the subjective moral sensibilities of the people in power.”
Petite et Moyenne Entreprise Montreal (PME MTL), is in charge of administering the Emergency Assistance to Small and Medium-sized Business loans.
“We have been financing over $50 million last year in loans which is not bad, but sometimes you cannot finance everybody. This is the problem,” says Gilbert Samaha, Director of Consulting and Financing services at PME MTL. “We follow the rules as the money comes from the government of Quebec.’’
We reached to the government of Quebec for comment on the eligibility criteria and they did not get back to us in time for publication.
While certain businesses are being discriminated against because of the nature of their services, this exclusion doesn’t surprise independent sex workers. Forced to continue their work because of the lack of government support, the pandemic may be pushing the industry more underground.
As for Cinéma L’Amour, the business has been doing better than it had before the pandemic began. Since reopening in March, Koltai says that his overall business went up by 25%. Now that half the city is shut down, people are giving the cinema a second shot.
“We’re getting a lot of different clients at different times and we’re trying to make sure that their experience is great,” says Koltai. “We hope that when the city opens up. That we’re not going to disappear and everyone’s going to go everywhere else.”
At least one silver lining that came out from the pandemic is that it suddenly freed up a lot of time. Being forced to close gave them the opportunity to revamp the cinema and adapt it to the new reality by blocking every third seat and providing free condoms to prevent the spread of the virus.
‘’I can tell you that we worked every day, but they don’t see that the sound system is better. The screen is clean. The projection is better. Everything is better,’’ says Koltai.
H-cinema-wide.jpg: The oldest movie hall of its kind in the city, the venue has maintained its original interior design and is being used for filming, music videos, festival hosting, concerts, and fashion shows. Photo by Camille Perrin
As he owns the building, Koltai does not yet feel the pressure to sell and watch his cinema shut down.
“People joked about us,” he says. “‘You know Montreal is doing bad when Cinema l’Amour is finally closing.’”