Movie exhibitors including Cineplex Inc. (CGX-T -0.60% decrease) have pulled screenings of a South Indian-language film across Canada after individuals opened fire at four cinemas in the Greater Toronto Area last week, the latest incidents of intimidation related to Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam blockbusters.

Videos obtained by The Globe and Mail show a person in a hoodie shooting a gun multiple times through the passenger window of a vehicle at the entrances of Cineplex locations in Scarborough and Vaughan. In a separate video, the driver of the vehicle fires at a Cineplex in Brampton. York Cinemas, a theatre in Richmond Hill, Ont., was also hit by gunfire. The shootings shattered glass and left bullet holes in windows. According to York Regional Police, the incidents occurred in the early morning hours, when the theatres were closed.

The videos were e-mailed to a few theatres and film distributors just ahead of the Jan. 24 premiere of Malaikottai Vaaliban, a fantasy-action epic. Cineplex pulled the movie, as did CinéStarz, which owns six theatres in Ontario and Quebec.

Film distributors have contended that a turf war is being waged and that a group of individuals is trying to control the lucrative market for South Indian-language films in Canada, using vandalism and intimidation to pressure theatres and distributors to drop certain titles and ensure the films run in favoured cinemas.

“With reference to the incidents at our theatres, we are working closely with local authorities, who are leading this investigation, and can’t share more details at this time,” said Michelle Saba, vice-president of communications at Cineplex. “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are no longer playing Malaikottai Vaaliban at Cineplex theatres.”

Incidents of vandalism started around 2015 in the GTA, as Cineplex, the country’s largest theatre chain, was making a bigger push into the Tamil film market. Vandals have slashed screens at Cineplex theatres showing Tamil movies and released noxious substances such as pepper spray inside auditoriums, prompting the chain to pull some titles.

In recent years, Telugu and Malayalam movies have been affected, too. The Globe has found more than 20 incidents at Cineplex locations, independent theatres and other chains such as Landmark Cinemas across Southern Ontario, Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton and Surrey, B.C.

In December, noxious substances were sprayed inside three GTA Cineplex theatres, forcing audience members to evacuate.

Despite the turmoil, Saleem Padinharkkara had high expectations for Malaikottai Vaaliban. His company, KW Talkies, partnered with an international distributor for the Canadian rights to the film. About 8,000 tickets had been sold. “This is unheard of for a Malayalam movie,” he said. “This is an untapped market.”

In the days before the premiere, another distributor, 2kerala Entertainment Network, sent letters through a law firm to some theatres showing the film, claiming to hold the exclusive distribution rights. 2kerala demanded that the theatres negotiate for the rights or drop the movie.

Jeff Knoll, who runs a movie house in Oakville, Ont., received the letter but had no doubt that Mr. Padinharkkara held the rights to the film, having worked with him in the past. “He showed us he had the film,” Mr. Knoll said. “I don’t think he would put himself out there if he didn’t have the rights.”

A few days later, on Jan. 22, both Mr. Padinharkkara and 2kerala received an anonymous e-mail demanding $200,000 and threatening to stop the distributors from obtaining rights in the future. “Remember we know everything about you and your family,” the e-mail read. “Don’t be [an] idiot.”

A follow-up e-mail arrived the next day. Mr. Padinharkkara didn’t see either one until later, since the sender used a company e-mail address that he rarely checks. But on Jan. 24 he received yet another e-mail that contained the videos of the four shootings. He declined to provide a copy of that e-mail, citing a police investigation.

“Investigators are aware of all four incidents and are working in partnership with the other services,” said media relations officer Ashley Visser of the Toronto Police Service.

York Regional Police also issued a news release Tuesday seeking witnesses to “drive-by shootings” at movie theatres. Investigators believe the four incidents are linked, according to the release.

Distributors lose money when film screenings are cancelled, and some have abandoned the market. International distributor Aashirvad America, which partnered with Mr. Padinharkkara on Malaikottai Vaaliban, is now reconsidering bringing movies to Canada. “I don’t see us doing a film in Canada until we get this resolved,” said representative Neil Vincent.

Moviegoers, meanwhile, are being deprived of the chance to see blockbusters in theatres when companies are forced to drop titles.

“At this time CinéStarz is not playing the movie Malaikottai Vaaliban in any of its cinemas. Our priority includes the safety of people while this sensitive matter is currently under investigation,” said spokesperson Melissa DiMarco.

York Cinemas and a few other Ontario theatres with the same owner are also not screening the film. (These theatres were working with 2kerala, not Mr. Padinharkkara, according to an online advertisement.) Representatives for the theatres did not reply to a request for comment, nor did 2kerala.

Only two theatres are still showing Malaikottai Vaaliba: the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto and Mr. Knoll’s theatre in Oakville. So far, the movie is drawing only modest audiences, according to Mr. Knoll. “Some of these incidents probably dampen some excitement,” he said. “Who’s going to bring their kids to a movie if there’s a risk of bear spray?”

Mr. Knoll, who is also a city councillor in Oakville, has experienced the vandalism first-hand. In February, 2022, individuals slashed two screens at the theatre. Still, he’s not planning to pull any films. “No one’s going to tell me what to play,” he said.

The Globe and Mail, January 31, 2024