In May 2010 Torontonians were filled with hope when the Toronto Underground Cinema opened its doors. Run by three local cinephiles, the theatre community hoped it would fill the void in the city’s repertory cinema landscape left by Bloor Cinema (which closed its doors as a rep cinema, and found new life as an upscale documentary-focused art house theatre). Alex, Charlie and Nigel had no previous experience running a business, nor helming a single-screen theatre on their own. The cinema faltered and had a rough start, and local documentary filmmaker Morgan White decided to make a movie about the experience.
This month Toronto Film Scene Editor-in-Chief Will Brownridge and Publisher Trista DeVries come together to discuss whether The Rep is Essential Canadian Cinema.
Trista: So, first, I should probably say that I loved this movie. In watching The Rep, I definitely got a different picture than I did when The Underground was open. I was difficult for me to get a handle on what was going on there, since from an industry perspective, they never seemed to have any real programming. It was never obvious to me that they had any kind of renaissance or re-opening. What I liked about the film the most was that it looked hard at the journey one specific cinema went on (with a ton of unusual obstacles), but contextualized it with the history of repertory cinema in general across North America and Europe. What did you think of it?
Will: I also loved the film, although I feel like we had a different experience in terms of The Underground. I was always aware of the programming they had at the cinema, and I vividly remember when they closed for a small time before relaunching the cinema again. I do remember some of the difficulties in keeping up with their programming though, and The Rep did give me a different perspective on the inside details of running The Underground, which gave me a better understanding of why they may have had those problems.
It was fascinating to see how The Underground relates to just about every other rep cinema across the world in terms of building an audience, handling programming, and the challenge of maintaining the crowds. Although The Underground wasn’t unique with its challenges, there was something about it that felt incredibly Canadian. As if it wasn’t just the fact that it had to overcome the same hurdles as every other rep cinema in the world, but also had to overcome the fact that it was a Canadian rep cinema.
Trista: At the same time, I found it difficult to watch this film only as a moviegoer. Because Toronto Film Scene’s original purpose was to be a resource to connect film lovers in the city to the wonderful programming at the reps cinemas, I was very familiar with the inner-workings and politics of The Bloor when it was a rep cinema. Alex worked there during a time of great success for them, and I felt that the film left out a huge part of the picture. Alex worked at The Bloor and was vocal about moving to The Underground. There were huge expectations that came from that kind of credibility, and I felt that the film left that out. However — big however — from a strictly moviegoer perspective I can see how it may not have been relevant. I can’t help but feel it contributed though, especially when Peter Kuplowsky was on camera talking about their reputation with the industry.
Will: If the film had been strictly about The Underground, I think it would have been more in-depth and looked at the background of everybody who was taking part in the venture. That would have been a great film, and that’s what I had been hoping for when I sat down to watch The Rep. I think the film took the approach of looking at the problems with The Underground in relation to rep cinemas around the world. It didn’t seem like the focus was on the specific reasons for The Underground’s problems or the history that each person brought to it beyond a passion for film. The focus, to me at least, seemed to be about the universal troubles of rep cinemas.
I think there was a lot of things missing from the film, although some of them obviously related to time. After the appearance by Adam West at The Underground, the theatre began having a lot of great programming like that, offering people more than just old films. I would have liked the film to continue on to see what I thought were the highest moments at the theatre.
Trista: But then would that have fit with the thesis? If the thesis of the film is that repertory cinemas are a dying breed, then a large chunk of the film focusing on the good times might not have worked as well. I would have liked to see a little bit on the specific reasons why it closed, though, because it wasn’t just about the cinema itself, there were issues with the building and the condo above. I understand that these issues were well documented in Toronto media at the time, but if you are watching this in Winnipeg then it’s much more of a mystery and the film makes it seem like they just couldn’t make it go.
That said, I don’t agree that the film was about rep cinemas globally, and not The Underground specifically. They do a lot to go into the interpersonal problems with the guys, and certainly not every repertory cinema has a partner who was not only home schooled, but their first job was running this theatre. That’s definitely unique. In fact, I would say that most repertory theatres hire people who have at least had jobs before, and I genuinely felt that the film did a great job of shedding light on some of the major issues that led to the wonky programming and low attendance in that first year. I think that there were a lot of false impressions about the cinema itself and how it was being operated. I think the general consensus in the Toronto film industry was that the guys just weren’t trying and were seriously mismanaging the business, but that wasn’t the case. The film clearly demonstrates that there were serious challenges that faced them, and then rounds out that thesis by showing rep cinemas from around the world.
Will: Focusing on the good times may not have fit perfectly with the thesis, but when those good times are followed by The Underground closing, I think we would get a better sense of why rep cinemas are a dying breed. We would get to watch them succeed and then see what goes wrong to close the theatre. Was it poor attendance? Did the programming problems they had at the beginning continue and that’s what happened? Is the fact that they’re still running 35mm seal the deal? We may know more about it in Toronto, but as you said, if you’re in Winnipeg watching, it’s a mystery. How does that help us understand why rep cinema is a dying breed?
You’re probably right that the film is focused more on The Underground, but that wasn’t what I felt as I watched. I think that may have to do with the fact that I live close to the theatre, and was more aware of what happened after the film finishes. Since it’s missing so much information that I know already, and doesn’t offer me anything new to explain what happened, I just didn’t feel that it was giving me a full look at The Underground specifically. The Rep does clear up a lot of the misconceptions about the first year of The Underground, but I don’t think it clears up any misconceptions about why it closed. I really wanted to see the whole story, as I’ve always felt it was second hand information that I heard about the theatre closing. What I took away from the film is that they couldn’t get it together to keep it going, and I think there’s a lot more to it than that.
Trista: Those are all fair things to say. It would be interesting to know why those decisions were made, but there are also shooting schedules and wrap ups, and when you’re making a film about a subject that could go on and on, when do you stop?
All of that aside, however, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my favourite part of the film. Right in the middle of a movie about how rep cinemas are dying, and how this one cinema in specific is struggling, there was a segment about how Alex programmed a crowdsourced week of Canadian films and no one came. When the IATSE projectionist responds to Morgan’s question, “Do you like Canadian movies?” by saying, “No. They’re all fucking depressing. Every fucking one of them.” I laughed so hard I had to pause. I think that segment showed how much lip service people are willing to show to our own cinema, but when it comes to the action of getting off our asses to get to the theatre to see them, we just can’t be bothered. I made me question my life’s work more than I would like to admit. In the heart of this movie, there was a little jewel of Canadian commentary that wasn’t intended by the filmmaker. It just happened. You can’t script that. There is no better representation of how Canadians feel about our cinema.
Will: I would never fault the film for not following to the end. You’re right, they’ve got to stop somewhere. I just really wanted to see more and was disappointed, but it doesn’t change how great the documentary actually is.
I’ll have to assume that within that laughing at the IATSE projectionist’s response, there had to have been a few tears of sadness as well. While there may be some truth to his statement, perhaps even more than I’m willing to admit, I have to disagree with him completely. It has been my job at TFS to watch indie film, mostly Canadian, and I would say that there are a greater number of films I’ve enjoyed from Canada than anywhere else. The problem is that none of them really blow me away, which may add to the statement that “They’re all fucking depressing.”
I think it stretches beyond people not wanting to watch Canadian cinema. It’s difficult to get people out to see anything at all, unless it’s the latest blockbuster film. What chance do the “depressing” Canadian films have when nobody can even force themselves to go to the theatre to watch something that they know and love. That was one of the more interesting points that I think the film made. It isn’t usually enough to just program some great movies and wait for the crowds to come. To compete with the massive home theatres we’ve all set up, you’ve got to offer something unique. I think we used to go to the theatre to watch movies, and now we’ll only go if it’s an event filled evening. A movie isn’t enough now, partly because of the easy access we all have to them.
Trista: I think that’s true. I think that there’s a watering down of the cinema experience. I find that the multiplex experience varies wildly, even in the same chain. Some are religiously clean and ushers do their jobs, while others are filthy and theatre checks haven’t been done in days (which I know because I took pictures of the check-in sheet in the theatre I was in). The repertory experience, however, I find to be fairly similar everywhere. There is rarely two teenagers in the back of The Royal heckling a screening of Maleficent. There is a sense of community in rep theatres that you simply cannot find anywhere else. While the sound and picture continue to get better at the multiplex, I will always return to the smaller theatres for a better experience, so we definitely can’t let them die. That’s why I think this is such an important film. It perfectly contextualizes the struggle repertory cinemas face on an ongoing basis, while also looking specifically at the most public failure of a rep cinema in Toronto’s recent history.
Will: What’s funny is that the experience I tend to have in the multiplex, with patrons being noisy typically, is something that I wouldn’t mind in a rep cinema watching a movie that I know and love. There is the feeling of a constant film festival at a rep cinema, and that’s the exact experience I want to have over and over again. You’re right, The experience in a rep cinema is the same no matter where you go, and the crowds are very respectful, even if I would rather they weren’t.
Rep cinemas are the places where passionate film lovers go, multiplexes are where the people with money go when they can’t think of something else to do. We absolutely need rep cinemas, but I don’t think they’ll actually disappear. It may turn out that there’s only room for one in a city, which seems to be how Toronto is looking, but as long as there is one place that film fans can go, we’re still in a good position.
Trista: I also think it seriously depends on what your definition on a repertory cinema is. Is The Bloor still a rep cinema? Is TIFF Bell Lightbox? They both do retrospectives and they both do first run films, but neither fit into a narrow definition of a repertory cinema. I feel as though The Royal, The Revue and The Fox are the theatres doing the best traditional repertory work right now. It is possible that I feel that way because neither The Bloor nor TIFF Bell Lightbox are community theatres, really. They speak to programming tastes of the whole city, while the others tend to cater to their area. Does that make them less repertory cinemas? I’m not sure. (I am sure I’m not qualified to answer this question with anything more than a theory, however.)
Will: I wouldn’t call The Bloor a rep cinema now, as its programming is focused so heavily in one area. I’ve always thought of TIFF Bell Lightbox as the high-end rep cinema. I want my rep theatres to be a little more midnight movie instead of wine and cheese. I’ve actually never been to The Revue or The Fox, but I’ll say The Royal is exactly what rep cinema means to me. I think everybody may have their own variation of what a rep cinema is or should be. I’ve always thought of them as a place where I can see older films, although I know most of their models include new releases as well, to guarantee a slightly larger audience. I think that was also something that came up in The Rep, showing once again just how well done that documentary is.
Is The Rep Essential Canadian Cinema?
Trista: I certainly think it is. I think the film sheds light on an important part of recent Toronto cinema history, and I think it’s a very good movie people should see simply because they will enjoy it. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
Will: As I was saying before, something about this film feels incredibly Canadian. It may be the first film that I’ve watched for Essential Canadian Cinema that I immediately thought perfectly fit the idea. I can’t put into words what that idea is, but I knew this film was it the second it was finished. It’s absolutely essential, a great doc for film lovers to watch, and more Canadian than most of the Canadian films out there.