A few weeks back while chatting with my mom, she mentioned something that caught my ear: a micro-cinema in Stratford. Wait, what?! I’ve been to Stratford numerous times, seeing plays as a child and visiting for fun day trips and mini getaways as an adult and never heard of this Little Prince Cinema before. How was that possible? It’s right up my alley! I googled the mini movie theatre and immediately put it on my Must See list before reaching out to the owners.
Side story… Back in 2016 I rented an Airbnb with a talented photographer and true cinephile in the building adjacent to where The Little Prince Cinema and Lounge now resides. Additionally, we used to live in Wellington, New Zealand, a city we chose for its thriving creative community where Wētā (the company that created the Lord of the Rings movies) is located. Thanks to Wētā, many creative individuals live in and around Wellington, and the city has the best cinema-going culture. There was only 1 multiplex, and the rest of the theatres were beautiful independent cinemas with cafés, character, and strong community connections. I’ve been meaning to share them with you on here since 2018…oops! To top off this web of a story, guess what the street name in Stratford is that The Little Prince Cinema is on? Wellington!
You can understand why I was so excited to visit the micro-cinema. Oh, and did I mention that one of the co-founders was born in Ireland? (If you’re new here, the Irish isle is my second home and is the first country I want to hop on a plane back to when I travel internationally again.)
Where is Stratford, Ontario?
Stratford, Ontario is situated on the Avon River in southwestern Ontario, Canada, 1 hour and 45 minutes west of Toronto along Highway 8 and 45 minutes east of Grand Bend, the popular summer beach destination. Well-known for the internationally-acclaimed Stratford Festival, cozy welcoming BnB stays, and small city charm, Stratford is a destination for all ages.
What Is a Micro-Cinema?
According to an article in the Criterion Collection, a micro-cinema or microcinema is “local DIY spaces or series curated with an idiosyncratic mix of programming (whether little- or well-known movies)”. The term has been used since the 1990s to describe the intimate feeling these theatres provide, much like gathering with friends to watch a film at someone’s house.
Some micro-cinemas are established so that independent or fringe films, traditionally excluded from multiplexes, can also be enjoyed in a theatre. It is beneficial to the filmmakers and the audience. The Criterion Collection article mentions how some micro-cinemas also form “under politically adverse conditions” that prevent filmmakers from distributing their creations. For tiny spaces, their impact can be quite profound.
I think we can all agree, especially 2 years into this pandemic, that while streaming movies at home is convenient, nothing surpasses the experience of watching a film together. Micro-cinemas add an extra layer to the viewing experience with their unique intimate atmosphere. Oversized cineplexes are overrated, unless you’re watching an action-packed movie. Going to the theatre is an event, a mood, a memory – something independent theatres specialize in creating. Additionally, micro-cinemas’ miniature stature fosters conversation and connection. Thanks to their size, they’re also able to quickly adjust to the needs of the community. The Little Prince Cinema and Lounge excels in this respect!
Before The Little Prince Cinema There was The Meet Your Maker Art Gallery
The Little Prince Cinema’s story begins around 6 years ago as the Meet Your Maker Handmade Gallery and Giftshop. Situated in the same downtown Stratford storefront, the gallery was run by Leigh Cooney and his then business partner. It was a gallery that quirkier artists, such as Leigh and his colleagues, could eliminate the barriers of traditional art spaces. Each month there were exhibitions featuring different artists. However, raising a young family and eventually running the business on his own was quite challenging. Something had to change.
There are many threads woven between the art gallery and cine-lounge. For example, the custom-made pillows available to purchase at the micro-cinema are Leigh’s patterns that another artist sewed. Another popular item that carried over from the art gallery to the cine-lounge are the cross-stitch pieces made by another friend and fellow artist.
About The Little Prince Cinema
As of early 2022 you might walk by The Little Prince in downtown Stratford and completely miss it. There’s no sign outside – yet. But once you open the door and the aroma of fresh-popped popcorn tempts your senses, just one step inside will capture your full attention. This 13-seat micro-cinema and “old timey lounge, sweet shoppe, and intimate event space” is also officially a Guinness Book of Record holder (more on that below)! The Little Prince Cinema offers “adventurous and unconventional arts programming” that will have you telling all of your friends and family they must go check it out.
Growing up in Kitchener-Waterloo, co-founder Leigh grew to love the Princess Cinemas and eventually became friends with the owner, John Tutt. In fact, the cine-lounge’s other co-founder, Carla, also grew up in KW which was really neat to discover! Since moving to Stratford, Leigh still travels back to KW to catch films at the independent art house. It is also where The Little Prince derives its name from, as an homage to the treasured cultural gem.
In addition to the tiny cinema, there is a charming lobby lounge & concession complete with a miniature stage for live events and a mini retro arcade station that will have every millennial nostalgic for their youth. You might also catch a glimpse of a mini foosball table. Every single detail has been carefully curated to create a unique and inviting experience. The (functioning!) rotary phone was the Cooney house phone, the subtle Dave Pollett paintings reward those who pay attention to details, and the stately grandfather clock from Revival House hides a delicious surprise for the ears and tastebuds. Originally the lounge’s TV screen was meant to run silent films. It has now become a second screen for the theatre, giving parents a separate place to enjoy the venue or allowing patrons to refill their popcorn without missing the movie. There’s also the beautiful theatre ceiling, another successful DIY lockdown project. Surprisingly, none of the art in the space by Leigh or Carla, though Leigh’s old cameras are on display and a few artworks are from Carla’s home.
Built from the ground up by two very resourceful and dedicated artists, this little social enterprise has big ambitions.
Meet The Founders
Leigh Cooney is an Irish-born Canadian self-taught artist, social entrepreneur, and father. Carla Coles is an award-winning multidisciplinary artist, poet, and screenwriter. Leigh has been blessed with the gift of the gab, and though Carla is the quieter of the two she is full of stories too. They met thanks to a fellow business owner who coincidentally bought art from both of them and thought these creative minds cross paths. Together, this hardworking duo has built the Little Prince Cinema and Lounge in the hopes of cultivating a vibrant connected community.
It All Started with a 48.5 Hour Film Festival
How did an art gallery morph into a micro-cinema and lounge? Simple – an abundant mixture of creativity, grit, and determination. Co-ordinating events and thinking outside the box are two of Leigh’s strengths. Carla is an idea dynamo who actually bring them to life. These combined skills were the spark that started everything.
A few years ago, Leigh put out a call to see what would interest Stratford’s citizens for something different to participate in. Carla pitched the idea for a 48.5 hour film challenge, inspired by a 48-hour film festival in Guelph she participated in. The concept was to provide an inclusive opportunity for any member of the community to partake in a new and fun challenge. Why 48.5 hours instead of the usual 48? Just because! Oh, and despite both Leigh and Carla being artists, neither have a background in film.
This first joint venture is a true representation of one of their mantras – “invest first, then figure it out”. So far, I’d say they’re on to something.
The first annual Owl Film Challenge (OWL) participants ranged in age from teens to seniors and in expertise from beginners to film buffs. It was exactly what Leigh and Carla envisioned. Entrants were provided with a theme and invited to unleash their creativity. The first year of the family-friendly festival 10 movies were presented and 200 spectators attended the showcase at Queen Elizabeth Square in City Hall. No great event happens without a few hiccups though. With about an hour to go before submissions were due, Mother Nature casually tossed a city-wide power outage into the mix. The storm was no match for the town’s enthusiasm, and the show did go on!
The OWL ran for 2 years before taking a pause. How does the saying go? When one festival closes, a one-of-a-kind theatre opens! The original idea was for the cine-lounge to host several mini film festivals throughout the year. In the spring of 2019 an enthusiastic group of filmmakers, artists, family, and friends joined Leigh in designing and building The Little Prince Cine-Lounge. You can guess where this story is headed.
Over the course of the last two years, The Little Prince Cinema and Lounge has truly become “the little cinema that could”. Between bureaucratic red tape, not one but two floods, rebranding, ongoing construction, rolling covid lockdowns, several cancelled opening dates, along with other giant potholes, The Little Prince Cinema and Lounge has consistently demonstrated the power of determination, teamwork, and community.
Despite umpteen false starts, the micro-cinema was finally ready to open its doors for the first time to the public on March 10th, 2020. Spoiler – covid lockdown number one crashed the party. As luck would have it, the previous year’s struggles had prepared them well for the pandemic. The cine-lounge was the first business in Stratford to pivot to deliveries to stay afloat. With new popcorn and cotton candy machines that they hadn’t yet learned how to use, the dynamic duo posted an online announcement for home deliveries. Stratford’s residents craved the treats so much that within 2 hours of posting they had to shut it down! Three long days later, Leigh and Carla finally caught up on the initial orders. Within 10 days of posting, their resourcefulness kicked into high gear. They learned how to make cotton candy, created an Etsy page, and learned how to ship their product all over North America. In addition to the steep learning curves they tackled, Carla delivered local snacks and accompanying DVDs.
Another successful pivot has been offering Private Bubble Viewings. Unlike many larger facilities that lost revenue over empty seats, the micro-cinema and lounge is well-situated to continue with “regular” programming during phased lockdown openings. For the time being they will continue to only host private bookings.
Guinness Book of World Records
Even with everything Leigh and Carla have weathered, they are optimistic, dedicated, grateful for their community, and forward-thinking. Many times throughout our conversation they reiterated how they’ve made use of every lockdown to improve and grow the cine-lounge. One such example was the spontaneous idea to apply to The Guinness Book of World Records for the title of the world’s smallest purpose-built theatre. The theatre measures only 16.29 square metres, which made it another perfect “why not?!” idea.
It was a roller coaster process. The idea came to Leigh when they were forced to close due to flooding. The micro-cinema was eligible for two titles (smallest number of seats and smallest according to square footage), applied to both, and then had to choose one. Next came the rigorous application process…compounded by pandemic restrictions. After securing important community witnesses, such as Stratford’s mayor, the hunt was on to find expert witnesses. The search took months. The Guiness Book required they find someone with a doctorate in the history of brick-and-mortar cinematic buildings. What sounded like a needle in a haystack turned out to be close by at the University of Toronto! There was only one glaring problem. The second search result revealed the professor had passed away the previous year. Undeterred, Leigh requested the option to find 2 expert witnesses instead. Guinness gave the green light and, 15 months after the application, The Little Prince Cinema and Lounge is officially the proud title holder!
Community is Everything
A major theme throughout my afternoon with Leigh and Carla was the importance and value of community. They emphasized multiple times how incredible it’s been to be a part of Stratford over the years. Countless relationships have been established and nurtured from the Meet Your Maker days. From documentary filmmaker Craig Thompson who assisted with OWL to the enthusiastic participants who signed up for the festival, the bonds are far and deep. Both Leigh and Carla shared stories of local support throughout the pandemic. There were days when people knocked on The Little Prince’s doors with envelopes of money to keep them afloat or sent them words of encouragement to boost their spirits. Their downtown neighbour and fellow small-business owner, Jessie, has been their strongest cheerleader from the start. Leigh’s brother’s handiwork can be admired throughout the lounge. Another couple reached out and reinforced the belief that kindness really does make the world go round. And then there are the customers who have been able to walk through the door and enjoy the space. Leigh and Carla wear the biggest smiles when they recall the guests they’ve hosted so far and they can’t wait to see all sorts of new faces walk through their doors.
What’s Next for the Cine-Lounge?
For years Leigh has raised money for the United Way and House of Blessing and The Little Prince will continue to support these essential organizations. Another big goal is to work with different organizations throughout Stratford. As an immigrant to Canada and avid traveller, Leigh is excited to see Stratford embrace more newcomers to the town. He has been chatting with Dr. Gezaghn Wordofa, founder of the Multicultural Association of Perth Huron, and would love to host regular viewings of films in other languages – a small piece of home to share with their new home. Leigh also sees this as an oportunity for the residents of Stratford to get to know their neighbours better and to have the opportunity to experience other cultures while at home. Other goals are to host the local Pride group for monthly speaker series on the tiny stage, or to welcome ASD groups into sensory-friendly viewings, or to provide hearing impaired individuals the movie-going experience most of us take for granted. Leigh and Carla also mentioned they’d like to provide accessible movie times for those with lower incomes – afterall, film is for everyone.
It’s safe to say the opportunities are endless in this finite space.
The Final Touch
The last big purchase for The Little Prince will be proper cinema seats, though that may not be for a while as they’re fairly pricey. The current chairs work well though and are easy to remove for wheelchair access. Knowing these two, you can bet it won’t be long before they find a way to mix those plush cinema seats with the accessibility needs of their customers.
What Kind of Films Are Shown at The Little Prince Cinema?
Whatever your movie-watching interests are, you will find something to enjoy at the Little Prince Cinema. With over 600 titles currently listed on their website (and thousands more to come), the genres available include everything from drama, to family, comedy, horror, action, and documentary. A few favourites that I spotted were An American Tail, Beetlejuice, Borat, Burn After Reading, Footloose, Home Alone, Thelma and Louise, Thor, and Zootopia.
How to Book Events and Viewings
The Little Prince Cine-Lounge is an excellent event space for birthdays, weddings, (video) gaming, corporate events, special request screenings, regular movie bookings, and many other special occasions. You get the whole place to yourself with a private booking, both the (licenced) concession lounge and cinema. Not only does it take the stress out of bringing kids to the movies, parents can relax in the lounge if they don’t feel like watching Encanto for the millionth time. It’s also the perfect way for families with children who have ASD or other special needs to comfortably enjoy going to the theatre.
There are 4 time slots available per day which can be booked through their website’s Party section. Another great option is to gift someone this unique experience with a gift card. A really neat bonus is the ability to add personalized messages on the movie screen if you’re hosting a birthday, retirement, or want to surprise your guests. They also play previews and commercials from the time the film was released – how cool!
How to Order Homemade Popcorn & Cotton Candy
If you live outside of Stratford and want some of their tasty treats, order online from their website. With over 60 interesting flavours of cotton candy created by Carla, and several popcorn choices, you might want to try a few flavours at once. Popcorn favourites like Movie Theatre Popcorn, White Cheddar and Caramel, and Classic Caramel are available, as well as fancier options like Caramelized Apple Butter or Dill. The most popular cotton candy flavours are the classic pink or blue, as well as cupcake, green apple, watermelon, and fluff tease. For the brave or crazy in the crowd, there are a number of options to satisfy your culinary quests, like bacon, sassafrass, hot chili, and jalapeño. I asked Leigh and Carla which flavours were the worst and with a cringe they automatically responded with garlic, ranch dressing, and winter fresh. I sense a challenge (not for me – for you)!
Fun Facts About Stratford’s Little Prince Cinema
- The official opening date was Oct 6, 2021.
- Currently there are 600 movies for you to choose from on the website, but there will eventually be a total of 30,000 movies available!
- Leigh’s voice sounds like Michael Keaton.
- Carla is a word nerd too!
- Some of the original OWL participants now work in the film industry, like Andrea Feltrin.
- When asked about something that stands out about their customers, I was told that The Little Prince has hosted many kids’ very first movie experience. Many of those who’ve been born during the pandemic or were a few years old when it began had never been to a theatre.
A True Gathering Place
The Little Prince Cinema and Lounge in Stratford is a must-see for your bucket list. This “mythical business” with more opening dates than most businesses (perhaps that’s another potential world record in the works…) is definitely real and can’t wait to welcome you.
Prior to meeting, Leigh and I connected through email. There was an instant mutual understanding of what it means to feel you belong or not. Like me, his name is often mispronounced, except for in Ireland where we blend in with other Irish names. There is something calming and simultaneously exciting about feeling you are accepted. At The Little Prince, everyone’s welcome – whichever countries you call home, the identity you align with, your age, or even your film preferences. The door is open – fingers crossed for good!
With a can-do energy and momentum picking up, this is a business to keep on your radar. In their words, “Tomorrow’s another day to start fresh. What can we do? How can we make this work?”. With a mindset like that, the sky’s the limit, even from within four tiny walls.