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Revival House

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Issue: 44 Section: Arts Geography: Ontario Toronto Topics: social movements, film

March 18, 2007

Revival House

The many lives of Toronto rep cinemas

by Jessica Allen, Simon Gadke

The Revue theatre has become a symbol of the fight to save alternative, independent cinema in Canada. Photo: Jessica Allen

If it had happened in a movie, it would have felt contrived. Like some second-rate screen metaphor, the marquee of the Revue, Toronto’s oldest movie theatre, came crashing to the ground on February 18, 2007 — a theatrical climax to the real-life recent death-spiral of repertory cinema in Toronto. It started in the city’s north end with the closing of the Capitol (1998), the York (2001) and the Eglinton (2002), all subsequently converted into corporate event theatres by an “entertainment consortium” of four Toronto investors. Next came the literal collapse of festival favourite the Uptown in 2003. And in July 2006, the trend moved south with the closing of four of downtown Toronto’s best-known rep theatres, all owned by Festival Cinemas, including the Revue.

Yet the crowd of locals that gathered the following day to pocket souvenir bulbs provided an equally potent symbol for an encouraging twist to the story of rep cinema in Toronto. It turns out that the recent spate of closings has had positive repercussions. Since June 2006, the Save the Revue committee has been galvanizing the High Park-Roncesvalles community and it’s just one example of several initiatives that have been popping up around the city to perpetuate alternative, independent cinema. Through projects that focus on community-based support, localized initiatives, alternative programming and a belief in Canadian filmmakers and audiences, Torontonians are turning water into wine and making the most of the closures, determined as they are to keep alive vintage movie houses and the appreciation for classic, indie films they promote.

Repertory cinemas, also known as “revival,” “art-house” or “second-run” cinemas, are generally older, single-screen, independently-run movie theatres that provide alternatives to the fare offered by corporate, multi-screen and, more recently, “megaplex” theatres, which predominantly specialize in first-run, blockbuster, Hollywood movies.
Indeed, strength of programming is traditionally what has kept rep theatres going. Cinematheque Ontario, situated in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall, is an institution of Toronto alternative cinema because of its “carefully curated retrospectives” specializing in vintage and foreign films. Regular speakers also do much to provide an historical and artistic context, and thus boost appreciation for more challenging films. Scott Gilbert and Bre Walt, who recently reopened the Poor Alex, expect that a similar commitment to programming will turn this former cabaret theatre, located in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, into a successful documentary film house. The plan for the “student-owned and operated worker co-op” is to have a program that focuses exclusively on documentaries dealing with political, social and environmental issues.

All across Canada, independently-run movie theatres are being shut down and replaced by corporate “megaplex” theatres, which predominantly specialize in first-run, blockbuster, Hollywood movies.

Photo: Jessica Allen

But at a time when a whopping 73per cent of North Americans prefer watching movies at home over going out to the cinema (according to a 2005 poll conducted by the Associated Press), meaty programming alone is not necessarily enough to keep a rep cinema open. Theatre D Digital, a post-film production company dedicated to promoting Canadian cinema, is leading the way when it comes to giving rep theatres a new lease of life by recognizing the creative ways they can be used to give a vital boost to Canadian cinema. In 2002, they bought — and saved — the Regent, a 1920’s theatre on Mount Pleasant Road, converting it into post-production space for Canadian filmmakers. They have added state-of-the-art digital audio and high-definition video projection to a classic cinema space while keeping the original 45-foot screen. As a result, not only is the company preserving the Regent’s heritage and physical space, it’s also invigorating the filmmakers who, as Theatre D co-founder Dan Peel told the Toronto Star, “love working with the happy ghosts.” And they didn’t stop there. In June 2006, the company added the 68-year-old Royal, a former Festival Cinemas theatre in the heart of Little Italy, to their post-production roster. Another Art Deco gem, the Royal reopened in December 2006 after extensive renovations and now provides local filmmakers with facilities for everything from editing and sound mixing, to public screenings. Best of all, both the Regent and the Royal have reopened as rep cinemas at night, with a focus on home-grown features.

For Terry Burrell, such neighbourhood cinemas are not only the places to go to see interesting movies, but also familiar faces. Since June 8, 2006, Burrell and the other members of the Revue Film Society have been getting hundreds of people to sign petitions and donate money through their Save the Revue campaign. The community has responded with gusto, producing more than $30,000 and negotiations are currently underway between the Revue’s owners and a nostalgic, Liverpool-born local who plans to lease the space to the society upon purchase of the theatre. Burrell’s vision for the reopened Revue is as: “a community space on par with Roncesvalles Village’s best community centres, public schools and churches.”

While the fate of the Revue remains in limbo, the only alternative for west-end cinephiles is the Queensway. Run by Cineplex Odeon, it’s an exemplar of the modern “megaplex” cinema. Visible from the highway, accessible via two service roads, the theatre has a sprawling parking lot and houses 18 screens. Arcades, movie merchandizing and fast-food signs blitz moviegoers with flashing lights as soon as they enter the monumental foyer. Though a single megaplex like this one can seat some 5,000 people, it is oddly a place both of anonymity and security — the endless distractions allow for mental escape and the coliseum-style seating works to isolate individuals from any sort of shared experience.

The alternative focus on a communal experience sets rep theatres apart. And it could be what ultimately determines their fate. Scott Gilbert, who has recently opened the Poor Alex as a community centre during the day, says the doc film house has little hope of surviving without local support.

Movements like Save the Revue attest to our desire for the sense of community that these small neighbourhood theatres offer. So does the analogous outcry heard in cities across Canada when such theatres close. The response that erupted after the July 2006 closing of Montreal’s famous English-language Cinéma-du-Parc, since reopened, is one well-publicized example. Perhaps the situation in Canada’s moneyed-Calgary represents another trend in alternative theatre. The western boomtown is home to what looks like the Cadillac of Canadian art-house cinemas: the Uptown, another recently renovated Art Deco-style treasure.

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Indie Power!

Thanks for this article. Saving alternative cinema actually saves the future of cinema in general. And that starts by giving people a reason to watch independent movies- a reason and a place to watch them.

Keep up the great work!


Thats so sad :( We have the

Thats so sad :(

We have the same problem in the UK - all the old cinemas with character are going or gone.

Of course, the new Multi-plex cinemas are good - seats are more comfortable, more leg room, better sound etc. ... but the old cinemeas had a unique feel to them and it ia a shame to lose them forever.


need for support!

Mentioned briefly in the article, Scott Gilbert and Bre Walt's cinema in the Poor Alex Theatre off of Bloor Street West in Toronto, called the Brunswick theatre www.brunswicktheatre.ca is moving locations due to high cost.

They are touring Southern Ontario showing films before re-opening in a new location.

Check the website for more info!

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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