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The Toronto Underground Cinema Prepares to Rise Up

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The interior of the Toronto Underground Cinema.


If you’ve ever been a regular at your local repertory cinema, then chances are you’ve romanticized the idea of rebuilding your own independent movie house in the style of Cinema Paradiso or The Majestic. For three Toronto guys, the dream is quickly materializing in a long-defunct screening space at Spadina Avenue and Queen Street West. Alex Woodside, Charlie Lawton, and Nigel Agnew have revamped the space in the basement of the building at 186 Spadina Avenue—formerly home to a popular Chinese cinema—rebranded it as the Toronto Underground Cinema, and are currently preparing it to open its doors (tentatively) on May 14.


Both Woodside and Agnew are veterans of the venerable Bloor Cinema in the Annex who grew exhausted of butting heads with the owners over expanding the theatre’s second-run programming paradigm. “We had a lot of things we wanted to do [at the Bloor], and we started to do them last year,” says Agnew. “We did those events with Kevin Smith and Edgar Wright, and the Fringe thing, and a bunch of other events. There was a lot of opposition from the owners of the Bloor.”
Woodside first came across the new theatre last October, but was initially too occupied with other projects to commit to operating his own screening space. Then in February, Lawton got interested in the space, too, bringing both Agnew and Woodside back into the fold. Speaking to the three of them, what’s most immediately apparent is their shared passion for cinema and vision for the space’s possibilities.
“Obviously we’re going to run the regular second-run fare, because it’s just the backbone,” explains Woodside. “You have to have something going every day. But our goal is to have numerous special events every month to attract people. That’s why we’re in it, is it do stuff like that. If we wanted to just manage a cinema we could have applied for jobs at the Cineplex.”

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The presently inconspicuous exterior of the cinema at 186 Spadina Avenue, just north of Queen.


While the gutted building at 186 Spadina is unassuming to say the least (especially compared to the eye-catching marquees of the Bloor or the Royal), Agnew feels the subterranean screening space will help distinguish the Toronto Underground Cinema. “Because it is kind of tucked away, it is a destination location,” he explains. “You kind of have to know about it to be coming here.”
And while there’s little doubt as to the vibrancy of Toronto’s film culture, the question of whether the city can sustain another rep cinema hangs over the heads of the Underground’s eager managers, especially given their proximity to the Scotiabank, NFB Mediatheque, and Rainbow Market Square. “Once we get rolling we are interested in attracting more independent film, first run stuff, to this location,” says Woodside. “Being so close to Queen West and being so close to OCAD might be pretty good for us. If we get some film in that has some buzz in those kinds of scenes, they can come see it here.”
The other glossy elephant in the room is the imminent opening of TIFF’s Bell Lightbox, around the corner at King and John, which will be the new home of the TIFF Cinematheque currently located in Jackman Hall at the AGO. While Woodside notes that the Lightbox may frustrate the co-managers’ attempts to bring artier cinematic fare to the Underground, he remains optimistic that both the opening of the Lightbox and the persistent revival of the Queen-Spadina corridor will work to their advantage.
“I’ve personally been very opposed to the Lightbox. It’s kind of TIFF not embracing the cinema scene that exists in the city and always doing their own thing,” he says. “However, it is really moving part of the film scene in the city south…[E]ven the Entertainment District has changed a lot because of all the condos that have gone up in that area. There are considerably more people who live in this area now than there were fifteen years ago.”

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From left to right: Toronto Underground managers Charlie Lawton, Nigel Agnew, and Alex Woodside.


Promising to keep ticket prices as low as eight dollars for the first six months, after which a membership card will be introduced, and housing an impressive 706 seats (making it the second-largest single-screen theatre in the city after the Bloor), the Toronto Underground Cinema’s future seems promising. Lawton, Woodside, and Agnew plan to work with the local film community, offering festivals screening space that’s often hard to come by, even in a city with so many cinemas. “There’s a lot of great people in this city who love movies and doing movie-related things,” says Woodside. “And we want to work with them to give them a space to do stuff as well.”
Competition, both inside and outside the area, may be stiff, but the three remain confident that their singular vision for offering local filmgoers more than the standard second-run experience will make the Toronto Underground Cinema a destination for Toronto’s ravenous cinephiles. As Agnew puts its, “We want to develop a reputation as a place that’s known for thinking outside the box.”
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.
Thanks to Jonathan Goldsbie for the tip.

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