Madison Picture Palace. The Midtown. The Capri. The Eden. The Bloor. The names hint at the history of the Toronto movie house at 506 Bloor St. W. – a century's worth of fashions in cinema, from the glamour of the early talkies to the low-rent days of the adult movie house and back again.
But the next step for this old brick edifice may be its most surprising. As workers prepared to attach the new name – the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema – to a new marquee last week, it became something new: a permanent home for the documentary film festival and a 700-seat temple to non-fiction film. It'll be a new cultural institution for Toronto and, just maybe, a model for the movie house in the 21st century.
Inside, Hot Docs director Chris McDonald was sitting rather stiffly on a new seat, talking about Wednesday's grand opening. "It's an incredible good-news story," he said with a nervous grin, "though we may have to buy 700 hard hats." On the newly built stage, construction workers balanced on scaffolds and wielded humming mag drills to install a daunting array of new speakers. It's evidence of the building's comprehensive renovation, which raises its technical specs to the highest standards, enlarges the screen 30 per cent and restores the building's 1940s architecture and finishes.
Starting this week, Hot Docs programmers will bring 17 screenings a week to the Bloor, a mixture of about 80 per cent documentaries, both first-run and repertory, and one-quarter popular cult films like Labyrinth.
It's an ambitious move, especially at a time when other neighbourhood movie houses are struggling; a kilometre away, another 1940s theatre, the Paradise, has been dark for years and is now threatened with demolition. The Metro, just blocks away, has been showing porn for decades and is up for sale. Vaudeville-age movie palaces throughout North America, if they still survive, have generally been divided into smaller spaces and modernized – or continue with pornographic programming. The renovated Bloor Hot Docs Cinema will join a group of fewer than a dozen cinemas (including the Castro in San Francisco) that survive in their original form and with their original purpose.
Likewise, the idea of a documentary-focused theatre has few precedents. "I'm not aware of any," says McDonald. "There is one in Zagreb, Croatia, and I'm sure their programming is excellent, but it has 14 seats."
So what is driving the Bloor's reinvention? A love of documentaries and a passion for the cinema as it once was: a large-scale collective experience. "There is history here," says architect Siamak Hariri, who is overseeing the renovation. "This is about the persistence of the idea of 700 people watching a movie together and the atmosphere that creates. Wanting to be part of that – the oohs and the aahs – is a phenomenon that can't be replicated. That is something special."
That sentiment is shared by the people who are funding the renovation, film and TV producers Neil Tabatznik and Steven Silver. A few years ago, McDonald introduced them to the Bloor's previous owners. Tabatznik, a member of the Hot Docs board, had long been interested in buying a theatre; Hot Docs had been dreaming of its own facility; and the previous owners, the Bordonaro family, wanted to sell to someone who would preserve the cinema. "This seemed like the perfect scenario," Tabatznik says. "And it moved forward remarkably quickly."
They made a deal in late 2011; Tabatznik and Silver's Blue Ice film and TV production company bought the building, Hot Docs became its tenant and manager. Tabatznik called Hariri Pontarini architects "to gut the building and turn it into a modern building," he explains. "I love modern architecture. But as I visited the Bloor, I realized it would be a crime to do that to the Bloor. And Siamak shared that sensibility."
This is a bit surprising, since Hariri Pontarini is best known for boldly contemporary buildings of steel, polished stone and glossy hardwood. The nostalgic appeal of the Bloor, however, ruled their thinking. "We pushed against our own inclination just to clean it up," Hariri says. "Instead, it was a kind of archeology." In a speedy six-month renovation, the design team worked with historic photographs and literally pulled the place apart in search of original floors, wall coverings and textiles dating from 1941, when the theatre was largely rebuilt and reopened as the Midtown. The scalloped walls, glass-block windows and curvaceous steel railings look better than they have in decades.
One bold gesture helps connect the cinema to the world outside: a massive pane of glass at the back of the house, which creates sightlines all the way from the stage to the lobby and the street beyond. A curtain will cover it during screenings, but otherwise it'll be wide open. A sleek upholstered bench in front of the window provides an elegant meeting place. "When we have events here, you'll be able to see all the way to the street," McDonald says.
And events are certainly part of the business model. Hot Docs is planning to expand its school programs, which brought 70,000 students to free screenings during last year's festival. Private events during the day, such as corporate annual meetings, will bring added revenue; Tabatznik envisions "TED-type talks" or private screenings. "If a moviemaker wants to screen a film for 600 of his close friends, there is no better place."
To serve these varied purposes, the new owners have bankrolled a new set of projection and sound equipment to deliver high-end digital projection and Dolby digital sound, an improvement from the "atrocious" (as McDonald accurately puts it) previous system. The theatre's existing 35-millimetre Century projectors have been rehabilitated.
Clearly, the Bloor's new incarnation is not going to be primarily a place for popular entertainment. "I would never turn this into a cineplex. I really want to make a case for documentaries," says Tabatznik, who spent much of his career as a lawyer and pharmaceutical executive before launching Blue Ice. "At festivals, about 100 per cent of the most entertaining and thought-provoking films I've seen have been documentaries."
The documentary genre is gaining attention, and the annual Hot Docs festival (the 2012 edition comes up next month) remains a world leader in the genre and a significant draw. (The event claimed attendance of 153,000 last year.) Yet it's clear to everyone that the theatre will not be full. "We've braced ourselves for that," Tabatznik says. "For us, the break-even point will be 35 to 40 people per screening." Blue Ice has also committed to covering any losses for three years. As for Hot Docs' part, McDonald acknowledges that running a cinema year-round is a gamble. "But we wouldn't be gambling if we weren't very confident we can do it," he says. "We will make it work."
The very specific niche of the Hot Docs cinema has its own logic. The big-tent model clearly is not working; attendance at North American cinemas over all has been trending down since the late nineties. Repertory cinemas, even in major cinematic centres like New York and Paris, are generally non-profits. And in Toronto, two of the best rep houses, the Regent and the Royal, "are reinventing the business model," as McDonald points out, by renting their facilities for sound editing and post-production during the day.
"But the partnership with a film festival might be a new model," McDonald argues. "We can do things that private-sector companies can't do. We have relationships with thousands of filmmakers around the world. We have 15 programmers. We have customer-service experts. We understand that going to the cinema is an experience."
The Bloor has always offered a rich experience. It is a palace of memory, and memories – a century's worth of collective experience of cinema – are what keeps it alive. Hariri is philosophical: "Marshall McLuhan wrote [in Understanding Media]that one medium takes the last one as content," he says. "Now the history of the movie house becomes part of the movie house."
And the picture palace becomes a new sort of palace, for a smaller crowd.