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The TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre in Toronto is shown on Aug. 29, 2017.

MARK BLINCH/The Globe and Mail

As health officials continue to urge the public to be abundantly cautious and practice social distancing in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Toronto International Film Festival’s Lightbox cinemas will shut down for one month, effective Saturday afternoon. In a statement released Saturday, TIFF said that it was taking the “extraordinary measure” of closing the Lightbox, along with its programming, until April 14.

“This has been a heartbreaking but necessary decision,” wrote TIFF co-heads Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente in a statement. “At TIFF, we stand with our fellow film and arts organizations that have seen their events cancelled or postponed. We stand with artists eager to engage audiences with their work. To that end, we will be looking for every opportunity to continue doing what we do best, building bridges between great films and passionate audiences.” (TIFF added that all canceled events will be refunded and will be refunding to credit cards automatically.)

Coronavirus-related cancellations sweep across Canadian cultural scene

Opinion: David Mirvish has finally shut down his Toronto theatres – but did he act too late for his reputation?

The decision makes the Lightbox – a nearly 10-year-old complex housing five screens in the heart of downtown Toronto – the first movie theatre in Toronto to suspend operations due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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As of Saturday afternoon, Cineplex, the country’s largest exhibitor with three large multiplexes in downtown Toronto, has kept its cinemas operational, though with 50 per cent reduced seating to provide audiences “with the choice to sit where they feel most comfortable and safe from a social-distancing perspective.”

Imagine Cinemas, which operates two smaller-scale multiplexes in downtown Toronto, the single-screen Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, and the city's handful of independent and repertory single-screen cinemas, such as the Revue and the newly renovated and re-opened Paradise, also remain operational.

TIFF's decision comes in the wake of a wave of arts-organization cancellations, both in Toronto and across the country. Hours before TIFF made its announcement, Mirvish Productions decided to also suspend its live-theatre events, and the day before, the 11-day Hot Docs film festival, slated to begin the end of April, announced it was cancelling this year's event.

TIFF’s closure marks not only a blow to moviegoers in Toronto – especially those who lean toward art-house fare, with the Lightbox opening just a day ago Kelly Reichardt’s universally acclaimed drama First Cow – but also homegrown filmmakers.

Next Friday, Toronto director Kazik Radwanski was set to premiere his lauded drama Anne at 13,000 ft. at the Lightbox. Coming weeks were to feature Murmur and White Lie, two exciting new films from up-and-coming Canadian directors. The building’s reference library serves as an invaluable resource to both students and practitioners of cinema. And there are surely questions circulating both within and outside the Lightbox campus about how this development will affect the organization’s massive fall festival, a primary revenue-driver for the not-for-profit that has reportedly been struggling to fill its seats before COVID-19 began making headlines.

But most of all, the Lightbox’s shuttering offers a grim harbinger of the future of moviegoing, at least for the next little while. Movie theatres, already facing anxiety thanks to the rise of streaming and a production pipeline that has delivered oft-generic product, cannot help but take a look at the growing wave of arts-event cancellations and grimace. As of 5 p.m. on Saturday, the lights are off at a linchpin of Toronto’s filmgoing scene. The entire film industry is surely asking themselves which organization might go dark next.

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