How independent theatres are staying alive

By Cassandra Ryan

The smell of popcorn is something that’s a constant, no matter where a person is in the theatre. The seats are red, blue, and black velvet, they’re soft and comfortable and they fill the single auditorium. Rows upon rows await eager moviegoers.

There’s a pull-down screen and a projector that sits in a room with someone running it. It’s like the old days, before digital production was the big thing. The Revue, though, uses both projectors and digital production.

University of Toronto film professor Charlie Keil says that a lot of independent theatres went out of business during the conversion to digital production because it was too costly.

There’s something nostalgic about the feel of these old-timey theatres, though, sources say. They’re landmarks that have sat in the heart of Toronto since the early 1900s and have remained open despite bigger Cineplex theatres and online streaming becoming popular.

Many horror busts from several horror franchises in Reg Hartt’s Cineforum in Toronto on March 13, 2018. (Photo by: Cassandra Ryan)

According to data from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), millennials in North America went to the movies an average of 6.5 times in 2016.

The same study shows the number of frequent moviegoers has also increased in 2016.

Frequent moviegoers are the driving force of the movie industry, accounting for 48 per cent of all tickets sold in North America, the study says.

This includes independent theatres that have formed a loyal fan base. They play movies that were once widely released, and also ones that don’t fit the norm of Cineplex theatres.

Some people really do seem to like movies [in Toronto]. There’s a strong movie-going culture in the city. 

But not all of these theatres can remain open just because of habitual moviegoers on their own.

In 2006, The Revue — which owned local cinema chain Festival Cinemas — closed down after the fall of the theatre. But in 2007, it reopened as a not-for-profit and community-driven cinema. In 2016, over 20,000 guests went to events the theatre put on.

What really helped one theatre is the organizations they went into business with. The Royal partnered with Urban Post, which is a post-production company run out of the theatre, helping The Royal stay open despite the threat of closure in 2007.

Dan Peel, with Urban Post, says this type of partnership is beneficial to the theatre as it’s very cost effective.

Inside Reg Hartt’s Cineforum in Toronto on March 13, 2018. (Photo by: Cassandra Ryan)

When it comes to the type of films The Royal plays, Peel says they tend to go towards indie films that don’t have the opportunity to go to bigger theatres, such as Phantom Thread in early April, or silent films that wouldn’t be in larger corporate-owned cinemas.

“We’re constantly looking for new and innovative shows to put at The Royal,” he says. “We’re looking for more indie films that don’t have the opportunity to go to the bigger theatres.”

Movie choice is a big deal for these theatres, even more-so for smaller, locally-owned such as Cineforum.

Outside of Reg Hartt’s Cineforum in Toronto on March 13, 2018. (Photo by: Cassandra Ryan)

Cineforum was created by Reg Hartt in 1992 after he’d been doing screenings all around the city for years in places he’d rented, like libraries, schools, colleges and churches. He opened his theatre because he found there was a lack of connection in these public places.

“It’s not a theatre. In Europe, it’s called a salon,” he says as he leans back in one of the many computer-chairs scattered around the film room in his home.

A salon is a gathering of people, usually for the arts. When Hartt hit 50 years old, which is when Europeans believe you’re supposed to do this if you have the means, he opened his own salon in his home in downtown Toronto.

And for Hartt, film choice is a big deal for him. Even if no one shows up, or if tons of college students show up drunk, he picks movies that speak to him and can speak to the movie-going community of Toronto.

“When I started working out of here [Cineforum], I started programming things that I thought were important and valuable,” he says.

Various movie posters inside Reg Hartt’s Cineforum in Toronto on March 13, 2018. (Photo by: Cassandra Ryan)

Showing documentaries that many haven’t heard of, such as BBC’s Shroud of Turin — a story about a linen cloth showing an image of what appeared to be Jesus ‚ is what gets people to come into his salon. Curiosity from moviegoers is a massive reason why he opened in the first place.

Isabella Minicucci, an avid film fan, moviegoer and film minor at York University is one of those people.

“It depends on the movie,” Minicucci says. “My basis for seeing movies is because it’s an indie that will only be in theatres for a short time.”

She goes to these indie films that don’t get critical acclaim outside of the smaller theatres that host them to show support.

“I only go if I want to support the filmmaker or support the message of the movie,” she says. She adds that while she knows paying $13 won’t do much, she wants to do what she can for these types of movies.

Minicucci is an example of the type of moviegoer Keil refer to.

Even with the large moviegoing populous, Keil still thinks it’s unusual for Toronto to have as many open and running independent theatres as it does.

 A map of independent theatres in the GTA:


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