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, to conclude our series, we look at the next immediate steps for rep cinema.
Photo by Flashfonic.
The story of rep cinema in Toronto is not as simple as it was made out to be two summers ago. Technology is often portrayed as a Goliath that crushes everything in its path, but, ostensibly, standing (and staying) in the path of the giant never helps. (The music industry would be in less of a bind if it had adopted affordable legal downloading sooner. Instead, customers became accustomed with free downloading, a habit that once established will be nearly impossible to stop. Responding to Napster by suing users was classless.) The popularity of DVDs was not the only factor in the closure of Festival Cinemas; the closure of Festival was not the death knell for the entire rep cinema community. Even if rep cinemas as we know them were to vanish, people passionate about film would adapt and find new, innovative ways to screen their programming.
Rep theatres are important to the film culture in Toronto. While first-run theatres run product through like disintegrating commodities, rep theatres keep important—either from a popular or critical perspective—films alive in the public’s consciousness, and allow an opportunity to watch them as originally intended. Seeing films as a set, such as during a season at Cinematheque Ontario, places them into context and heightens their significance and impact. It comes down to realizing that the experience at a cinema can be simulated at home, but cannot be replicated.
Rep cinemas also give filmgoers access to new and upcoming filmmakers, as reps tend to be more adventurous in film booking. Independent filmmakers can launch their films in the smaller venues, like the 50-seat Camera Bar, to help ignite word-of-mouth. Events like Drop Your Shorts at the Revue Cinema and the Popcorn Trilogy at the Bloor Cinema bring exposure to Torontonian and Canadian stories. (The Bloor takes the love of film farthest by producing and exhibiting its own films.)
The survival of rep cinema depends on theatre managers caring about creating awareness for their programming as much as choosing their programming. Festival Cinemas provided a connected structure to promote rep theatres, but in its disappearance, Toronto’s independent cinemas are isolated and disconnected. The prominence of social media, however, allows easy, quick, and affordable communication with the audience. In a city where dozens of events simultaneously battle for the attention of time-starved people, creating meaningful relationships is the best defense against declining film attendance.
It takes more than just setting up a Facebook group though. Part of engaging the audience is filling out the film experience: embedded trailers, links to production notes, and recommendation of similar films. Potential customers may be hesitant to try something new, and a clean, user-friendly website goes a long way to drawing new business. The Revue, the Fox, and Cinematheque Ontario have led the charge in website design. On the other hand, the Bloor Cinema website would be more user-friendly if the vintage promotional clip didn’t start up every single time the front page was loaded and it’s a shame that Theatre D Digital has put up the Royal’s “temporary” website on MySpace, which is awkward to use and visually unappealing.
Filmgoers also play a role: they can’t take the presence of rep cinemas for granted. Audiences vote with their money, and a theatre can only continue if people attend screenings. As the Kingsway, Paradise, and Runnymede theatres demonstrate, it’s difficult to find a business to replace the social and cultural value of a theatre once it’s gone for good. As Charlie Keil asks: “Did we really need a Chapters in the Runnymede space?” Apathy is a dangerous thing. The best example is the shuttering of Festival Cinemas. Although the closure was in part due to DVDs, distributors, and downloads, it was the lack of interest by the owners that in the end lowered the curtains.
Popcorn Trilogy poster courtesy of Robin Sharp.