Rep cinemas killed off by DVDs and artsy first-runs

Small-title distribution and exhibition in Toronto took a blow last month with news that four of the city's oldest, most established rep cinemas are shutting down - pushed out of business by shrinking DVD windows and mounting competition from first-run mega-chains.

Small-title distribution and exhibition in Toronto took a blow last month with news that four of the city’s oldest, most established rep cinemas are shutting down – pushed out of business by shrinking DVD windows and mounting competition from first-run mega-chains.

Local chain Festival Cinemas is closing its Royal, Paradise, Revue and Kingsway movie houses at the end of June, leaving the lights on at just its Fox theater.

‘These are tough times for the movie business and even more so for the repertoire cinemas,’ said Festival boss Jerry Szczur in a statement, adding in later interviews that the chain has lost much of its bread-and-butter second-run business to the increasingly rapid release of movies on DVD.

Sources say Festival and other rep houses have also struggled to set themselves apart from the major, first-run chains – an unfortunate side effect of the city’s constant and up-market moviegoing. Cineplex Entertainment runs a number of multiplexes – the Carlton, the Cumberland and Canada Square – that cater almost exclusively to indie moviegoers, while the Toronto International Film Festival Group’s Cinematheque Ontario is a major draw to vintage and foreign film fans. The city also hosts innumerable film festivals.

AMC Theaters, meanwhile, recently dedicated six of its Canadian screens, year-round, to independent film as part of a 39-market program across Canada and the U.S. Four AMC screens in Toronto, one at Montreal’s Forum 22 and another at the Kanata 24 near Ottawa went all-indie earlier this month, running titles from mostly U.S. distributors such as Focus Features and The Weinstein Company.

That’s a lot of competition for Festival’s old-fashioned, single screens that have long been among the favorites of Toronto cinephiles, hosting film festivals and serving as launching pads for oddball first-run films.

The Royal, an art deco landmark of the city’s Little Italy, hosted the Hot Docs festival in 2003 and 2004 and saw several debuts.

Tom Alexander, director of theatrical releasing at Mongrel Media, notes that the distrib used local rep cinemas to launch titles including Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy and The Corporation, which went on to become a Canada-wide smash in 2004.

‘What’s great about the rep cinemas is they have a monthly calendar,’ that is widely read by loyal customers and often includes helpful write-ups, he says. ‘It can really help position your movie.

‘We premiered [Porn Star] at the Royal and that was really good, because it was the kind of edgy fare that worked for the crowd,’ mostly young, bar-going hipsters, he says. Likewise, the domestic Corporation played well with the intelligentsia of the Annex neighborhood and its Bloor Cinema.

But because of stiff competition from the artsy first-runs and the loss of their core, second-run moviegoers to DVD, Toronto’s reps are viewed by some as ‘venues of last choice,’ says Alexander. Not good if you’re looking to attract the attention of the Toronto media.

He says a film has ‘to be something special – it’s got to be edgy, unique’ to do well through rep cinemas. ‘It’s got to appeal to the clientele.’

Local producer Gerry Lattman, who recently screened his feature Things to Do at the Bloor, agrees that playing to the right audience is key, and worries that the loss of the Festival screens could make it harder for small-title filmmakers to get into the remaining reps.

‘If there is an effect, I think there might be a supply issue, with regard to where I can screen my films,’ he says.