Questions about how we consume and engage with movies have ramped up lately with the release of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which saw the acclaimed film unveiled on Netflix and simultaneously given a limited theatrical run.
While purists shudder at the idea of someone watching a film on their phones, streaming also makes it possible for viewers outside of major cities to access such work altogether. As the landscape changes, the communal aspect of going to the cinema could appear to be a fading ritual – and yet Toronto is a city blessed with several independent theatres that are finding ways to adapt to the times, suggesting that a movie-going culture and the age of streaming may not have to be mutually exclusive.
A recent surge of independent film series in the city is proving that the theatrical experience is alive and well, offering not only an ideal technical presentation but the chance to share a unique experience with others.
It’s how local independent venues such as The Royal Cinema and Revue Cinema are adapting and succeeding even as streaming makes a larger impression on consumer habits. Alongside longer-running monthly series at The Royal like Neon Dreams Cinema Club, which started in 2015 and screens a wide array of neo-noir films, and Ladies of Burlesque, which started in 2016 and pairs films with live burlesque performances, new programs are finding – and creating – an enthused audience, largely consisting of millennials.
New to The Royal in 2018, Eastern Promises showcases an eclectic range of Asian cinema, while No Future highlights subversive portrayals of childhood in genre films.
Themed series that not only showcase interesting work but spark discourse through curator introductions and post-screening discussions demonstrate how a film is contextualized, and can transform the audience experience and reception. It may be difficult to motivate people to leave their living rooms when they have so much at their fingertips, but the promise of a communal experience and lively discussion offers something Netflix can’t.
Sarah-Tai Black, a Globe and Mail contributor and one of three directors at The Royal, along with Kathleen Prinsen and Richelle Charkot, is the curator of that theatre’s Black Gold, a series that celebrates black icons and filmmakers. Since March 2017, the series has programmed such films as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason and offers free tickets to the black community. Coming up on Feb. 20, Black Gold and Ladies of Burlesque are co-presenting a 60th-anniversary screening of Black Orpheus on 35 mm with a performance from burlesque artist Zyra Lee Vanity.
“Cinemas have been historically racially coded spaces," says Black. “I wanted to create a space where black people can see themselves on screen but also see themselves reflected in the seats and the programming.”
Initially part of the Festival Cinemas chain that collapsed in 2006, Revue Cinema in Toronto’s west-end reopened in 2007 as a not-for-profit, recognizing that second-run programming wasn’t sustainable, and has continued to expand its regular and limited series with guest curators, particularly since Eric Veillette joined as programming director four years ago.
“Silent Revue is one of the longest-running series in town and in the past five years we’ve built a really good roster of curators who deliver good movies and an entertaining program," says Veillette. “It’s important that it’s varied enough to attract different audiences. As isolated as we’ve become, people are yearning to come out.”
Other series include culture writer and Globe and Mail contributor Nathalie Atkinson’s Designing the Movies, which moves the spotlight away from actors and directors to the often overshadowed artists working in production design and costuming. Then there’s the Revue’s playful series Dumpster Raccoons, in which pop culture critic Anthony Oliveira pairs “trashy cult classics” with live performances.
The rise of independent series isn’t limited to cinemas, either. Vertical Features at the AGO’s Jackman Hall is helping fill a gap in radical programming with a focus on non-fiction cinema. Initially supported by Ryerson University, Vertical Features was started by local programmer Jesse Cumming in collaboration with Dan Browne and Olivia Wong.
“The aim is to present exceptional examples of documentary (or documentary-adjacent) filmmaking that haven’t yet had an opportunity to screen in Toronto," says Cumming. “We work to ensure that the screenings feel like special occasions, commissioning original writing on the films and hosting filmmakers to discuss their work.”
To kick off its upcoming season, Vertical Features will be hosting two of the key figures of Vancouver’s experimental film scene, Ryan Ermacora and Jessica Johnson, on Jan. 15 for a showcase of their work, which interrogates notions of nature and place. And in February, Turkish-American filmmaker Nazli Dincel will be in attendance to present a selection of her shorts.
With the restored Paradise theatre in the Bloorcourt neighbourhood set to open some time this year, Toronto’s movie-going culture has the potential to continue growing in the so-called age of Netflix. For curators, it’s not a matter of competition but co-operating to stimulate interest and satisfy an appetite for new points-of-view.
“Paradise is opening at the perfect time to complement and grow the smart, ambitious film programming already happening in Toronto," says Jessica Smith, the theatre’s director of programming, noting the Paradise will host live music and comedy showcases in addition to film screenings. "Our programming will be eclectic and responsive, connecting and engaging audiences through singular experiences.”
Seemingly against the odds, 2019 may prove to be one of the best and diverse moments in ages to actually go out in Toronto and experience a film.
“I started programming because I was angry I didn’t see myself in the cinema landscape," says Black. "I think that’s why these series are blossoming. Once one person starts doing it, it opens a door.”