Rep Cinema Revival: From The Festival's Flames
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Rep Cinema Revival: From The Festival’s Flames

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 fall of Festival Cinemas, which sparked fears that rep cinema would disappear from the city.
021808_royal.jpgIn 2006, the future of repertory cinema in Toronto was bleak. Festival Cinemas, the largest chain of rep theatres in the city, shut down in the summer and announced the closure of five theatres: the Kingsway, the Paradise, the Revue, the Fox, and the Royal. (Rep theatre closures were not exclusive to Toronto. In 2006, Montreal’s last English-language rep, Cinéma du Parc, also closed.) To add salt to the wound, the Bloor Cinema (which had broken off from Festival Cinemas in 1999) was plagued with rumours that it was in poor financial shape, exacerbated by repair costs for a collapsed roof in 2004. As a whole, the movie exhibition industry—first-run and rep—was facing a problem: attendance from 2002 to 2005 had dropped 16% from 125.7 million tickets sold down to 105.2 million.
Many reasons were attributed to the downturn of repertory cinema in Toronto, but the most popular was that audiences were still watching movies, but from the comfort of home. DVDs had supplanted the two traditional repertory cinema markets: artier fare, such as independent, foreign, and classic films, and second-run films. The widespread availability of DVDs gave people greater accessibility to the former, while distributors began closing the window between a film’s theatrical and DVD release and cut into business for the latter.
Home theatre technology wouldn’t make rep cinemas redundant though. “Rep cinemas have a cultural function and an aesthetic function, and play an invaluable service to sustaining a strong film culture in Toronto,” says Charlie Keil, program director of Film Studies at the University of Toronto. Keil believes film watching is enhanced by the venue: “To watch a film in an older theatre is a unique and personal experience; there’s a history that can inform the experience,” he says.
The history is about to be added to, as the passion for the rep theatre experience has fuelled the return of three former Festival Cinemas theatres. The Royal was bought by Theatre D Digital to be used primarily as a digital production facility, but shows films at night; the Revue was revived by community members in Roncesvalles after an arduous fundraising campaign; and, in the Beaches, the Fox reopened renovated—including a change in management. Meanwhile, the Bloor has stayed open, defiant to any whispers that claim it’ll close any day now.
Photo by mdintoronto from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.