The repertory cinema will soon be no more.
Citing a long list of problems ranging from landlord troubles to difficulty obtaining a liquor license, the managers of the Toronto Underground Cinema have told the Star that the theatre will be shutting down in September. They haven’t spilled any precise details, but one of them has suggested that the cinema is being ousted so that a new tenant can move in.
John Semley writes:
“The long and the short of it is that there’s another group who has claim to the space,” says [co-manager Alex] Woodside, remaining mum on details. “We’ve tried to come to terms with them. But it hasn’t happened.”
Things were complicated further when the cinema began pursuing a liquor license to increase what Woodside calls their “niche.” The application was met with misgivings from some condo residents, leading to a drawn-out acquisition process. “My regret is that we didn’t go after it from day one,” says Woodside. “It was never a sustainable business model without it.”
There’s also the Underground’s location within a “competitive zone,” defined by film distributors and exhibitors, which prevents it from unspooling anything screening at the nearby Scotiabank Theatre, TIFF Bell Lightbox, and Cineplex Yonge and Dundas (formerly AMC). It also needed substantial upgrades in order to keep pace with local cinemas transitioning from traditional 35mm film to digital formats.
The Toronto Underground Cinema opened a little more than two years ago in a basement beneath a condo mid-rise at 186 Spadina Avenue. The theatre was the beneficiary of some equipment left over from the space’s previous occupant: a Chinese cinema.
Managers Alex Woodside, Charlie Lawton, and Nigel Agnew were hoping to create a repertory theatre and performance space in the vein of the Bloor Cinema (which now shows documentaries under the aegis of new operator Hot Docs), and for a while they succeeded at luring in crowds with festivals, screenings of fan favourites, and other events. Even during the good times, however, the Underground’s calendar was always sparse.
In any case, Godspeed, Underground. We’ll never forget the night we saw like two dozen bands play covers of Smells Like Teen Spirit in you.
The Underground’s managers have just released a statement about the venue’s closure. They’re still not saying much about exactly what precipitated the shutdown, other than that it was “legal and bureaucratic” in nature, and that it had something to do with “mounting costs.”
The last night at the Underground will be September 16th, when Night of the Comet and The Last Waltz will be playing back to back.
The full text of the statement is below:
Hello friends and fans of the Underground.
Many of you are aware that the theatre has been shuttered sine July for renovations. Unfortunately those renovations never began, as we have encountered problems of a legal and bureaucratic nature that we, management of the Toronto Underground Cinema, could not foresee. The mounting costs of these problems have ultimately led us into a situation where we have to say goodbye. The Toronto Underground Cinema will be closing its doors on Sunday Sept 16th.
We will be closing out our run with the very first film festival who ever partnered with us, the T.O. Indie Film Fest, which will run from Sept 6th – Sept 15th. More information about films and showtimes can be found at www.film-fest.ca .
For our final night we have planned a very special 35mm appreciation screening. We will be showing Night of the Comet (1984) and the purposefully appropriate The Last Waltz (1978). Both films will be projected in the superior 35mm format. No blu-rays here, just pure cinema. And yes, we will be playing The Last Waltz loud!
We’ve always tried to be as honest and open with everyone as possible right from the start, so we’ll try to explain our situation as best we can.
The Toronto Underground Cinema was founded on a hope and a prayer. We approached the owner of the property with an audacious plan to turn his unused space into a vibrant venue for cinema and events in the downtown core. We envisioned an affordable establishment where the city would be able to hold events and the community would be able to come together to see some of the best cinema from the past and the present.
With very little funding in place we, and the owner, came to an agreement to work hard to get the cinema off the ground. We overcame countless obstacles and have been able to deal with looming threats, keeping the doors open and the projectors running.
These current matters are out of our (the management team’s) hands, and as of right now we have been unable to secure a solution. The owner has been working tirelessly to resolve these issues, however the costs associated with these problems and necessary upgrades to the space and technical facilities have left us in a position where we can no longer afford to be in business.
We would like to send out our undying gratitude to our fans, patrons and friends and to everyone who helped us on this journey that has changed our lives and hopefully touched yours. This theatre would not have lasted a day if it wasn’t for the involvement of so many people that we are lucky to call our friends and family.
Although this is goodbye for now, we will not stop working on a way to bring the Underground back. Whether that is a year or two down the road when all issues have been solved, or in a different incarnation in a different space, we are dedicated to the love of cinematic exhibition, and the fans who support it. Until then,
See you above ground,
The Management of the Toronto Underground Cinema
Nigel Agnew, Charlie Lawton and Alex Woodside
This post originally referred to Woodside, Agnew, and Lawton as the Undgeround’s “owners.” In fact, they are its managers. The theatre is owned by a third party.