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Has there been a better time to be a movie fan in Toronto?

In Canada on August 14, 2010 at 09:12

Has there been a better time to be a movie fan in Toronto?

Liam Maloney for National Post

Liam Maloney for National Post

Megan Eckman’s documentary Parking Lot Movie is screened in the parking lot of the Amsterdam Brewery on Aug. 6. Open Roof Films is a new Toronto film event modelled on a similar series held in New York.

  August 14, 2010 – 8:34 am

It is perhaps Toronto’s most unique theatre. Located in a gravel parking lot behind the Amsterdam Brewery, near the corner of Housey and Bathurst Street, the makeshift theatre is home to Open Roof Films, the city’s newest — and possibly most ambitious — film series. At the north end of the lot, a large screen flutters in the wind like a white sail, while a few metres to the south, the Gardiner Expressway hangs overhead like a balcony; the low rumble of passing cars completes the surround sound. In the distance, the CN Tower glows exit-sign red, while a row of condos act as ushers, watching over the audience. The pre-movie entertainment isn’t provided by a reel of coming attractions, but by local lo-fi noise-rock purveyors Little Girls, followed by an onstage conversation with local director Richie Mehta.

“I’m amazed,” says the director, surveying the all-ages crowd of 550 people who braved unseasonably chilly weather for the series’ opening night screening of The Parking Lot Movie. “The atmosphere is amazing.”

Equally amazing is the wealth of options now available to Toronto movie fans. It was only a few years ago, when three of the Festival Cinemas theatres went dark, that local moviegoers feared they’d be left with big-chain theatres and little else. This year, however, has seen the opening of the Toronto Underground Cinema; the founding of Open Roof Films, modelled on New York’s long-running series Rooftop Films; and a newly reopened Carlton Cinema (by Alberta’s Magic Lantern Theatres, which operates the city’s three Rainbow Cinemas) only months after it was shuttered by previous owner Cineplex. And the biggest addition to the city’s movie landscape arrives next month, when the TIFF Bell Lightbox finally opens at the corner of King and John streets after years of anticipation.

“Toronto has long punched above its weight,” says Noah Cowan, the Lightbox’s artistic director. “We tend to do better than just about any other city in North America, other than New York, and probably, per capita, we’re right up there with them in terms of our consumption of our films.”

So, has there ever been a better time to be a movie fan in Toronto?

“I can’t really think of a better time. I’ve been amazed at what’s going on right now in the city … just the energy of film fans,” says Charlie Lawton, a co-founder of the Underground, a 706-seat single-screen theatre located in the basement of a nondescript Chinatown building. “We have a great film community. People actually care about movies, about cinemas, and they’re also interested in supporting local talent and local theatres. They want to try and see something unique, something interesting.”

That’s something the Underground, which opened in May, certainly provides. The second-largest single-screen theatre in Toronto — only the Bloor Cinema is larger — the venue features eclectic programming that mixes summer blockbusters such as Iron Man 2 with cult classics like the ultra-violent Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, which was screened last weekend as part of the theatre’s The Wright Stuff festival, curated by Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World director Edgar Wright.

“Our main goal is to turn this into an ‘event’ cinema,” Lawton says. “You come to have an experience.” That echoes the organizers of Open Roof Films, which will host twice-weekly outdoor screenings, and feature musical performances and director Q&As, for the duration of the month.

“Our motives were pretty simple,” says co-founder Michael MacMillan, who was chairman and CEO of Alliance Atlantis in a past life. “We just figured that outdoors, the last location in the world that you’d ever think to watch a movie in, with a hot band, with a bar, would be a lot of fun.”

He adds: “We weren’t trying to place it in any particular spot in the firmament.”
The firmament includes the approximately 70 film festivals held in Toronto each year, including Hot Docs, ReelWorld, the Worldwide Short Film Festival, Inside Out, Sprockets and After Dark, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this weekend.

“As recently as five years ago, it was looking pretty dire. The Festival rep house chain closed, there was nothing at the corner of Yonge and Dundas, a lot of the old theatres from the ’70s and ’80s [had] all shut down,” says Paul Gratton, the former vice-president of Entertainment Specialty Channels for CHUM Television, and the man who launched the digital channel Drive-In Classics, which was rebranded as the Sundance Channel earlier this year. “Now, I think, the diversity is far more reflective of more sophisticated movie-going tendencies that have developed as a result of having a world-famous film festival feeding local film buffs every year. There had to be a payoff.”

The payoff comes in the form of the $196-million Lightbox, which opens on Sept. 12. The five-storey shrine to film culture features five theatres, galleries and exhibition space and promises the kind of “event cinema” trumpeted by Lawton and others.

“That’s the future,” says Cowan. “There’s a lot of different ways to just watch a movie, but to get people to go out, I think requires something extra.”

Toronto’s film community could still use something extra, too. While he’s excited about the new venues and film series, Colin Geddes, who programs TIFF’s Midnight Madness lineup, doesn’t think this is the golden era of movie-going in this city. There’s not enough variety in the movies being screened, he argues. To illustrate this, he posts some newspaper movie listings dating from the late ’60s to early ’80s on his blog. One Famous Players ad from 1972 shows the theatre at Yonge and Eglinton was screening Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

“Think about that now,” says the film historian. “For Cineplex to suddenly pull out a film from 30 years ago — the oldest thing we get is Avatar with extra bloatage added to it. That’s shameful. Mind you, would kids even see a film in black and white today? Who knows?”

Posted in: Arts & Culture, Posted Toronto  Tags: , , ,


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