This week, the last new movie theatre to ever be built in Toronto officially opens its doors.
All right, that is a bit of obnoxious prognosticating on my part. There is no way to guarantee that the re-opening of The Paradise, which has sat dormant for the past 13 years on a somewhat sleepy stretch of Bloor Street West, will mark the climax of the city’s long and storied love affair with movie-going.
But at a time when a world of content is available on the screen of your choice, when developers have every incentive to build condos instead of cinemas, and when theatre attendance has declined so sharply over the past decade that Cineplex, the country’s largest exhibitor, is investing in almost everything but movie theatres, there is reason enough to predict that The Paradise will be Toronto’s last picture house. At the very least, The Paradise is a distinct outlier in the country’s biggest cinephile market.
Formerly a repertory cinema that was part of the now-defunct Festival chain of cinemas – and before that a home for first-run mainstream movies, Italian film, and then pornography – The Paradise was bought by financier Moray Tawse in 2013, and has since undergone a lengthy revamp.
“This is a unicorn project. This was not viable without a funder like [Tawse],” says David Thorek, The Paradise’s director of operations. “I don’t blame the developers – it’s market forces. Cinemas are big buildings that traditionally don’t make a lot of revenue. So if you don’t own the building, it’s going to be a struggle. I don’t want to name cinemas, but there are a few here that if you walk in on a Thursday night, and it’s only 30-per-cent occupancy, that’s scary. If a condo developer sees potential there and puts a big cheque in your face, I can’t blame someone for accepting that.”
Jessica Smith, programming director for The Paradise, is more optimistic about the state of cinema-going.
“The shared experience of seeing a film not in your living room, but with people who you don’t know, there’s something still special about that. If I want to take in a film and I want it to stay with me, to have the purest experience of it, then I go to the cinema,” says Smith, who leads a team booking everything from second-run films to retrospective series (“7 from ’37,” featuring movies released the same year the Paradise opened its doors) to Netflix titles looking for big-screen boosts (Marriage Story, The Irishman).
“People want to to stay on top of culture, and want to spend a nice night out. So I don’t think that cinemas are going anywhere. Whether there are any new ones being built, there are so many factors. But I do think that there is room for different models.”
The Paradise is betting on just that. What was once a 643-seat venue dedicated solely to the moving image will now be a more intimate multipurpose arts space for film, music, comedy and live talks. (There are 182 seats on the ground level, the first five rows of which retract into the floor to open up space for live events, and 22 VIP seats in the balcony). Firms ERA Architects, Solid Design Creative and Ware Malcomb have upgraded the 1937 building’s original Art Deco aesthetics to a style that is both elevated and comforting.
A first-floor Italian restaurant and second-floor bar, both to open in 2020, are aimed at serving as neighbourhood anchors. And already plans are underway for “Paradise 2.0,” which will transform the empty space next to the building into a bakery and café. Film may have been the driving force behind The Paradise’s rebirth, but it will not – it cannot – remain its sole focus.
“The way we designed and outfitted it was to make it a very flexible space. We can capture every area of entertainment that’s available out there,” says Tawse, who co-founded mortgage company First National. “Will it be a great money maker? Probably not. But I think we can make it an interesting hub for the community.”
Tawse, who is the sole backer of The Paradise, won’t reveal how much he spent on the revamp, other than to say, “a lot more than I anticipated.” But its opening marks the culmination of a dream he’s been carrying in one form or another since childhood, when his mother used to work at long-gone The Biltmore Odeon on Weston Road, where the screen acted as a de facto babysitter.
“I’d go sit in the theatre and watch these movies 6 p.m. till midnight, and sometimes she’d work the double shift on Saturdays and I’d watch it for 12 hours straight,” Tawse recalls. “I got to see some of the great classical movies – Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Jerry Lewis – and I wanted to bring that nice part of my childhood back.”
As the building was given heritage designation by the City of Toronto, it took Tawse and his team five years to navigate permits and designs. No one in the city had tried to refit such a space for modern-day building and fire codes, and install the latest in theatre technology (4K digital Barco projector, retractable 20-foot-wide screen from Cinematronix, eight-channel surround sound system).
The false starts were numerous – a Globe and Mail column from the summer of 2018 had an opening pegged for the end of that year – and the challenges persistent. There was asbestos in the walls, lead paint, a leaky front wall, problems with the sidewalk. And then, this fall, there was a sprinkler-system malfunction that destroyed AV equipment, including the screen, scuttling a planned November launch (damage was covered by insurance).
“When you’re dealing with any old building, especially one heritage-designated, you’re going to find things that were never on a blueprint, or a shaft you never thought was there,” says Thorek. “It’s been a challenge, but we’re almost there.”
However long it took, and for however much money it cost, the results are right there in every detail and corner of the new Paradise. A gold-and-black concessions stand, its striped pattern inspired by old TTC streetcars, commands attention as soon as you walk through the building’s doors. The plush leather seats with built-in side tables in the balcony provide the ideal vantage point to appreciate the room’s bold black, grey and gold interior design, or whatever happens to be projected on the screen (or performed on the stage). And the blue-and-teal marquee and sign out front, a replica of the original 1937 signage, lights up the neighbourhood, serving as a beacon for cinephiles and those who haven’t stepped inside a movie theatre in years.
Which brings back the original, somewhat nagging question of whether The Paradise marks the beginning, or the denouement, of Toronto’s movie theatre history. While the city isn’t losing screens any time soon – anything that may or may not happen to Cineplex’s Scotiabank multiplex at the corner of John and Richmond streets is years away – there are no solid plans to add any, either. (The closest development may come inside the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema located a few blocks east of The Paradise; Chris McDonald, president of Hot Docs, says “we continue to explore opportunities for expansion – we need more screens.”)
“We have to ask what we want for our city. What’s important to us and how do we want to live in our city? That’s the bigger question,” says Thorek.
In the meantime, The Paradise can serve as an alternative model – at least for another unicorn or two. “Maybe this,” adds program director Smith, “will be the source of inspiration for someone else with a lot of money.”
The Paradise opens Dec. 5 with musician Jason Collett’s The Basement Revue at 9 p.m.; its first film, The Irishman, screens Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. (paradiseonbloor.com)