When the news hit that Dipson Theatres would no longer operate the North Park Theatre, it wasn’t just a business story. For those passionate or nostalgic about these single-screen cinemas, it was heartbreaking. Though it was immediately announced there were plans to reopen the North Park, it’s still disconcerting when you understand the fragile recent history of these grand old movie theaters.
The North Park had been operating as a first-run art house, but in the past has included “repertory” programming devoted to classic films. (I remember an Alfred Hitchcock festival with particular fondness.). But single-screen movie houses have had financial difficulties since the advent of the multiplex, forcing many to find a niche as a “rep” house to stay open. Today, they are facing near-impossible survival odds competing with the lethal cocktail of multiplexes, on-demand video and home theater systems that rival some theatrical experiences.
The new documentary “The Rep” is a wonderful, sweet and often heartbreaking portrait of the people who passionately work to keep this important part of our culture alive. It’s a telling fact that “The Rep” premieres locally at 7:30 tonight in a new kind of rep house, the Screening Room Cinema Café (3131 Sheridan Drive, Amherst). It repeats at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The documentary follows three film geeks – Alex, Charlie and Nigel – as they run the Underground Cinema, a small theater hidden away in a condo building in downtown Toronto. Together, the three make “one functional person,” Charlie said.
We are with them as they take their first tentative steps to open the theater; on opening night with a full house; and then through the many ups and downs that follow. There are the depressing nights with only a handful of people in the theater and the multiple failed attempts at finding the right programming to draw crowds. Even a Canadian film series that was met with enthusiasm in social media is a dud with only two people showing up for Atom Egoyan’s powerful “The Sweet Hereafter,” a defeat that has the guys nearly in tears.
“Everyday was depressing. It was so unbearable,” Alex said. Working long days for little pay, the trio consistently faced the same difficult choice: Take the little money they were making to buy food and cover rent or pay the cinema’s bills. Meanwhile, the theater’s owner patiently waits for them to make it work.
So it’s difficult not to smile along with the trio as they pull off a special screening of the 1966 “Batman” film with a live appearance by star Adam West and later celebrate a full house for their one-year anniversary.
This engaging story is a microcosm of the larger issue of keeping these theaters open. Director Morgan White, who originally made this documentary as a five-part Web series, mixes in interviews with operators of rep houses across the continent, historians and filmmakers including Egoyan, John Waters and George A. Romero.
“You come out rejuvenated,” filmmaker Kevin Smith said. “It’s a way-back machine, a flux capacitor. A rep house is magic from top to bottom.”
Mike Torgan, who operates the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, shares the story of how it took the world’s most famous film geek, Quentin Tarantino, to save the rep house by buying it. “Because he’s our landlord,” Torgan said, “we are able to exist. It’s a money-losing proposition.”
We are there when the long-running Red Vic on Haight Street in San Francisco closes. And we see the often skeletal remains of other once-grand movie houses, now closed.
Throughout the film, the overwhelming passion for movies and old movie houses is palpable. We see the toll it takes on those involved with keeping these theaters open. We understand the emotions of Alex from the Underground Cinema when he discusses how cinema affects “People who don’t know each other but are being moved in the same way. It’s pure magic,” he said, adding sadly, “If we lost that, what would be the point of going on at all?”
3½ stars (Out of four)
Director: Morgan White
Running time: 90 minutes
Rating: Unrated, but PG-13 equivalent for profanity.
The Lowdown: Documentary on a trio of film geeks who try to make a success out of a single-screen repertory cinema in downtown Toronto.