The Rep, a documentary about the short life and troubled times of the Toronto Underground Cinema, is available on iTunes and VOD starting today.
For a documentary that elegizes the shrinking North American repertory cinema scene, The Rep is making the most of online distribution methods. Originally conceived as a web series about the ill-fated—and dubiously financed—Toronto Underground Cinema, the film is being made available via iTunes and VOD starting today, September 3. The release will make a worthy Toronto doc accessible to a wider audience—even if it does so within the sit-at-home, chug-back-Netflix viewer culture the film critiques.
“The irony of the fact that my film is going to be coming out online and that it started online is not lost on me,” says director Morgan White. “But you cannot by any stretch create the theatrical experience online. You can talk about that experience, and you can tell people that that experience is important. But whether they listen, you don’t know.”
Experience is a key concept in The Rep. Not just the cinema-going experience, which White sees as critically endangered, but also the experience (and inexperience) of The Underground’s three twenty-something managers, whose lives were transformed while running the business. White met Alex Woodside, Charlie Lawton, and Nigel Agnew shortly after The Underground opened, and began hanging out at the theatre with the intention of making fun, promo-y behind-the-scenes videos. But as financial pressures grew and audience numbers remained stunted, a more serious story emerged, and White decided to expand his project into a feature-length documentary. “I didn’t want to show the realities, but ultimately the realities started to become forefront at The Underground,” says White, “And also kind of the more interesting thing.”
The result is both a coming-of-age tale about the guys’ individual struggles—personal relationships get about as much screen time as state-of-the-medium musings—and a broader exploration of North American rep cinemas. Our review back in May praised the film’s portrayal of the passion driving these theatres, which tend to have plenty of heart, but few breathing bodies in the seats. In The Rep, this tension often manifests as a discrepancy between getting the word out and getting actual people out. The Underground’s four thousand Twitter followers were happy to chime in with programming suggestions and retweets, but weren’t so keen to show up to a screening.
“It was kind of shocking that nothing was set, nothing was easy,” White says. “There was never any ability to predict whether a movie would do good or bad. Which is sad to me.”
White faced this reality himself when it came time to screen The Rep last spring. He offered the movie for free to any rep cinema wanting to load it into its projector, and about thirty have shown it so far—not only in Canada and the United States, but also in Australia, England, Germany, and Estonia. The turnout has been predictably mixed.
“It’s a really wonderful feeling to know that you’ve done something and it’s being shown,” White says, “But the problem is, ultimately, how many people come? Not that many. In some cases there were a bunch of people. In some cases there weren’t. That isn’t about my film, and it isn’t about the cinema. It’s just the way that it is.”
The Toronto International Film Festival starts later this week, which means Toronto’s filmgoing community will temporarily rule the city. The Rep is a reminder that there are many non-Cumberbatch-related reasons to support both independent film and independent venues year-round.