2011 Hero: Toronto Underground Cinema
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2011 Hero: Toronto Underground Cinema

Nominated for: bringing new life to independent cinema in Toronto.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past twelve months. From December 12–23, the candidates for Mightiest and Meanest—and new this year, a reader’s write-in option! From December 26–29 you’ll be able to vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year, and we’ll reveal the results December 30.

Just a year and a half into its existence, the Toronto Underground Cinema has already become an invaluable part of the city’s cultural landscape, with an eclectic slate of films, live performances, and concerts. Granted, expectations were high when the cinema opened in May 2010, with its prime location on Spadina Avenue just north of Queen Street West, a pedigree that included former Bloor Cinema employees, and a space that was filled with character and history. At the time we hoped the success of the Underground would solidify the position of Toronto’s rep cinemas, marked by the success of the Fox in the east end and the survival of the Revue in Roncesvalles—a sense of promise the Underground has fulfilled.

Since rep cinemas don’t show mainstream new releases, they can’t depend on film studios’ marketing machines to bring in customers. Instead, the keys to survival are building community ties and establishing a unique curatorial voice that speaks to a specific audience—in essence, acting as stewards of film culture. Over the past year, founders Nigel Agnew, Alex Woodside, and Charlie Lawton have done just that by housing the popular Toronto After Dark festival; launching Defending the Indefensible, a new series featuring local film critics debating poorly received films; and becoming the de facto downtown venue for cult or underground screenings, with directors Guillermo Del Toro, Edgar Wright, and Kevin Smith having all stopped in since it opened.

The significance of the Underground can be gleaned by looking back at the very space it now inhabits. Prior to the Toronto Underground Cinema revival, the theatre was known as Golden Classics and, for nearly two decades from 1977 to 1995, ran films from Hong Kong produced by the studio Golden Harvest. During its heyday, Golden Classics was a place where Chinatown residents could gather en masse to watch films that reflected their culture, with actors that looked like them and spoke their language, while snacking on a container of Pocky crackers or dried cuttlefish.

That cinema did not survive the rise of the home video market and the shift of many locals to suburban Chinese communities in Scarborough and Markham; however, its significance as a hub for a minority culture to connect with a part of itself remains. In a similar way, the Underground acts as a congregation space for Toronto’s geeks, where they can take in a free screening of Scott Pilgrim, catch a concert to raise funds for a new independent film, or watch a Simpsons-themed burlesque show. By injecting new energy into our local film scene and exploring the contemporary relevance of a rep theatre, the Toronto Underground Cinema has proved itself a worthy hero for 2011.

CORRECTION: December 22, 2011, 09:22 A.M. This post originally stated that the Toronto Underground Cinema is located on Queen Street West, when it is actually on Spadina Avenue. We regret the error.