Owners of the festival cinemas announced last week that screens at the Revue, Kingsway and Royal will go dark forever by the end of June. The three classic movie houses were the babies of film lover Peter McQuillan, who died two years ago.
Since then his three kids, Kate, Mark and Chris, have taken over, but they say that it was really their dad's passion that kept the theatres going. The business just isn't working any more.
The rep theatres have been "a labour of love for a long while," says Chris McQuillan. But "we've concluded that time has passed us by. Certainly, many people think they're iconic parts of the neighbourhood, but it's more a function of nostalgia. People are not going to the theatres in large numbers."
Festival's two other theatres, the Fox in the Beach and the Paradise on Bloor West, are owned by Peter McQuillan's old business partner, Jerry Szczur, who announced Tuesday, May 16, that the Paradise will be closing as well.
Szczur cites "pragmatic factors" i.e., financial and competitive concerns as well as personal reasons for the closure. He says he hopes to lease the Fox to someone who will keep it going as a rep cinema.
"These cinemas have required long, hard hours of work and commitment, propelled by my personal interest in showing films the way I think they were meant to be shown."
Tim Bourgette, manager of the Royal on College Street, says, "Toronto has lost an affordable venue for independent film producers."
Sure, the seats are rickety and the lighting dim, but that's part of the charm of these theatres. The Kingsway was the first Festival location to open 30 years ago. The 95-year-old Revue building is the oldest movie theatre in the province still in use.
So why are the reps slowly dying? One problem is that studios are releasing DVDs faster than ever, so the reps, which play a lot of second-run commercial flicks, have a narrower window before movies show up in video stores.
Another is that indie distributors see rep theatres as risky places to open films. Says Robin Smith of Toronto-based distribution company Capri Releasing, "Some distributors think of rep theatres as kind of secondary. They think that because a theatre isn't first-run, it can't play a first-run film properly."
Indie films cost a lot of money to promote, and "it's next to impossible to open a movie and make any money back after you pay for advertising and publicists," says film promoter Colin Geddes, who programs the Royal's Kung Fu Fridays.
But according to University of Toronto economics professor David K. Foot, the demise of rep cinemas is a result of "a non-growing niche market of aging boomers. There are other sorts of Bollywood rep theatres that are doing well because they're marketed to a younger generation."
Still, some theatres are not only surviving, but thriving. Take the Bloor. A landmark since 1979, it used to attract 1,500 people a night. General manager Carmelo Bordonaro says downloads and bootlegs have changed that, but he attributes most of his theatre's continued success to location, reputation, a diverse film selection and special events like the occasional Rocky Horror Picture Show screening and ethnic film festivals.
At the Art Gallery of Ontario, Cinematheque Ontario has increased its membership by over 270 per cent in the last 10 years. Funded and run by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) group, it shows very specialized films, including national and regional cinema spotlights and thematic series, in its Jackman Hall theatre.
In other words, Cinematheque knows who its target audience is and has the money to support what it's showing.
Says Geddes, who also programs for TIFF's Midnight Madness, "Look at other cities. If rep theatres are able to survive there, then maybe the problem's not the audiences, but how the theatres are run."
We'll now have only the Bloor, Fox, Camera Bar and occasionally Canada Square and the Carlton to show more independent films.
The Royal is up for sale for $2.7 million. There's a possibility that the Revue will remain a theatre; at the Kingsway the McQuillans are letting the lease run out. The biggest fear is that these beautiful buildings will eventually end up as condos.
Chris McQuillan says they're being "picky" about whom they sell to, and the Royal's Bourgette says, "I'm hopeful that a white knight will step forward and take over the reins. We need places like these in the community."