Every day this week, Torontoist is exploring the future of repertory cinema in Toronto. We spoke to the theatre managers of four major rep cinemas to hear if rep cinema is dying, what it’s like to exist in a YouTube society, and what original programming has them most excited. Today, we look at the model used by Cinematheque Ontario.
Cinematheque Ontario, the screening program run by the Toronto International Film Festival Group, is not a rep cinema, but there are overlapping qualities between the two, such as the presentation of interesting films and the fostering of Toronto’s film culture. A look at Cinematheque could provide inspiration to improve attendance and awareness of rep cinemas, especially the concept of film seasons, suggests Charlie Keil, program director of Film Studies at the University of Toronto.
Similar to a stage company, Cinematheque has four seasons of programming. Ideas for each season originate from a range of sources, says Senior Programmer James Quandt: “We look to series offered by other venues or by distributors, suggestions or requests from our patrons, and mostly, the individual interests and tastes of our programming team.” For example, the upcoming Spring season will include a survey of New Romanian Cinema and a retrospective of the works of Austrian director Josef von Sternberg, who worked extensively with Marlene Dietrich. Quandt is most excited about showing a restored print of Humphrey Jennings’s Fires Were Burning, part of Cinematheque’s ongoing series “Treasures from the Bologna Film Festival.”
Packaging the programming into a definable size has two benefits: it provides structure and organization to the year, and it helps members plan ahead. Rep cinemas already have recurring nights or themes, and the guidance for a whole season could increase awareness and anticipation from filmgoers. “A module or season would show the nature and range of the works being screened and would allow people to make an appointment to go. Once people are in a pattern of attendance, they’re more willing to continue going,” says Keil. Quandt provides the following advice for running seasons: “Thematic series, which look best in concept or on paper, are not popular with our audience, who prefer a tightly-focused approach (such as a directorial retrospective).” The one thematic series that did work, Quandt notes, was “Spirituality & Sacrilege in Medievalist Cinema,” because it drew on many areas of interest, such as theology, history, literature, and cinephilia.
Quandt believes there’s a great need for rep cinemas in Toronto not only from film lovers, but also from those who wish to study film: “As an autodidact, I learned film not from any class or course, but by watching movies, voraciously, at any venue that showed art or classic cinema. It’s the reason why I moved to Toronto from Saskatchewan. The reps, alternative venues like Pleasure Dome and CineCycle, and Cinematheque ensure that international, classic, and experimental cinema have a strong presence here.”
Rep cinemas and Cinematheque share many common problems, notes Quandt, including the unavailability of quality prints: “The paucity of any, much less good, prints of many important films is a challenge.” Carm Bordonaro, of the Bloor Cinema, agrees: “There are fewer classics available every year. The distributors aren’t replacing the prints.” The problem, says Keil, is that from the distributors’ point of view, with the diminishing of rep cinemas, it is not in their economic interest to invest in new prints because they are not used often enough. A sea change may be occurring though: “Ironically, the DVD boom that has threatened rep cinemas has also caused a renewed emphasis on the restoration of films,” says Quandt, “although we still spend a great deal of our time and energy researching the availability of the best prints, which we bring to Toronto from Asia, Europe, South America, and the United States.”
Membership has steadily grown since Cinematheque launched in 1991, but, like most rep cinemas, attendance remains a worry. “Our challenge now is to gain and maintain a large audience,” admits Quandt. “We have a core, committed audience for classic cinema, but it is frustrating that after eighteen years the Cinematheque remains unknown to so many people.” It may be telling when he laments: “Our profile is stronger internationally than it is locally.”
Blue Angel and Shanghai Express posters from Archiv fur Filmposter website.