How to see stuff cheap

With the dollar buying less and less, here are some tips for students and other financially challenged filmgoers

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Life’s not fair. Some people got gadgets, some don’t. Some are all geared up with wireless doodads and computers brawny enough to hack full-length DVD movies right into their hard drives.

The rest of us still have to get off our ass and shift chairs to watch a film. Here’s how to do it in Toronto.

The low-coin method

Best view from the couch is still the movie lineup late nights on CBC, CTV and TVOntario — all free with the cost of a TV set. Shelagh Rogers’s Saturday-night classics on TVO run without commercials, courtesy of the same Ontario government that grudgingly subsidizes your education.

For those who insist on going out, start with the local public library. Most have decent, if shopworn, collections of videocassettes. You’ll need a VCR, but they can be bought or cadged cheap.

For those willing to go out and stay there for a few hours, the crusty old Eaton Centre (Yonge and Dundas) screens this year’s blockbusters a couple of months after they open in the big houses. The screens aren’t much bigger than suburban home theatres, but, then, a ticket is only $3, or $1.50 on Tuesdays. Sit closer.

Cheap Tuesdays at the rest of Toronto’s movie houses aren’t as cheap as they used to be, but it’s still the best day to see action, comedy and anything else that goes down better with hordes.

Best house in the city is still the Uptown 1 (764 Yonge). Best-kept secret? The Humber (2442 Bloor West). Most like being inside a pinball machine? The Colossus, at Highways 400 and 7.

Branch out a little at the Festival repertory chain. Its six cinemas scattered around the city screen both Hollywood and Indiewood movies. A flick at the Royal (606 College, 516-4845) followed by coffee and people-watching at the Diplomatico may be the best cheap date in town. Regular admission at the Festival cinemas is $7.50, but a $6 annual membership gets you in for $4 every time.

The indie Bloor Cinema (506 Bloor West, 516-2330) has a similar deal, and screens a more adventurous mix of commercial, classic and cult movies.

If adventure’s what you want, check out Pleasure Dome. Ten years old and just as bratty, this collective screens Super-8 epics, queer rave-ups, video noodlings and experimental fare. Home base is usually Martin Heath’s glorious CineCycle in the alley off 129 Spadina, but they’ve also been known to throw down in bars, parks and the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West, 979-6648). Admission ranges from free to 10 bucks.

And next spring, right around the time exams finish, Toronto hosts several indie festivals that continue that vibe. Images, Inside Out, Desh Pardesh and the Worldwide Short Film Festival all compete for your alternative pleasure centres.

But if nothing but a brand new, big-screen freebie will do, here’s the scam. Every week, movie studios host promotional screenings in some of Toronto’s best cinemas, co-sponsored by local media outlets (like this one).

Mill around the entrance to the Paramount, the York or the Uptown. Wednesday nights are best, but Mondays might work, too. Show up at around 6. Ask about the promo screening at 7.

Then, as people stroll up with their passes, look for loners. Each free pass is for two, which means you might find a single someone willing to offer you their extra ticket. But keep this in mind: although they didn’t pay for the ticket and they’re not using the extra one, people still hate when you ask them for it. So be nice.

But the best bet of all might lie right at your doorstep. Find out when the big intro film courses hold their screenings, and crash. In my first film course, some poor fool put up his hand and said how amazing it was that Einstein made films, too. You don’t want to look like that.

So if anyone on campus is screening Eisenstein, Welles, Hitchcock, Dreyer and all the other staples, go see them. Get an education.

For those with cash

Cable and pay TV are where the small-screen movie options really start to open up. Bravo and Showcase both show a wide range of international cinema, though Showcase gets the nod for its stronger cinema focus (and its two insanely scintillating hosts). TMN, Moviepix etc screen a much narrower range of Hollywood films, but without commercials.

For video hounds, Queen Video (412 Queen West, 504-3030), Suspect Video (619 Queen West, 504-7135) and Revue Video (207 Danforth, 778-5776) are all strong in international, indie and weird-ass movies. Bay Street Video (1172 Bay, 964-9088) boasts the city’s best collection of DVDs for sale and rent.

The newest mainstream cinemas all share the same state-of-the-art picture and sound. Those who want to squander textbook money need to go further. The Varsity (55 Bloor West) has four VIP screening rooms where the $15 admission brings a popcorn waiter to your seat.

But if you’re such a high roller, why not put that money to better use? A membership at the Cinematheque Ontario costs just $32.10 and buys one of the world’s best screening programs of high-end international cinema. Single tickets cost $8.

The Cinematheque is run by the same folks who put on the Toronto International Film Festival, which is one of the few institutions in this city that actually is world-class. This year marks its 25th anniversary.

Advice for anyone attending the festival: don’t waste your money on films that’ll be sprawled all over Blockbuster shelves in six months. I’ve already seen Bye Bye Africa, from Chad — that’s Chad, the country — and it’s sublime. Sublime is what you want. Look for it in Iran, Central Europe, francophone Africa and Taiwan, for starters.

In fact, I’d suggest you just blow off your first week of classes and go to the festival. If it eats into October’s rent, consider it an investment. Watch four or five films a day. Bring water and munchies. You won’t regret it.

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