Occasionally, Spacing editors share content on our blogs that have originally appeared in our print magazine. This is an extended version of an article from the WayBack section in our Summer 2012 issue (which you can still buy on newsstands).
by Valerie Lam
You almost walk into the ticket booth when going through the doors of 400 Roncesvalles Avenue, where you’d only be here for one reason: to see a movie. A movie. Not three or four that may play simultaneously in adjacent theatres, but one film on the theatre’s one screen, which will capture the attention of an audience as big as the five-hundred-and-four seat capacity can fill. Trying not to topple popcorn out of your paper bag, you nudge your way into a seat just as the lights are dimming and the only sound heard comes from the stage, where a piano is dimly lit and William O’Meara—who usually plunks the keys for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir—is improvising the emotional storyline of tonight’s program, La Boheme, a French movie casted from 1926.
Once a month, the Revue puts on Silent Sundays, a monthly tradition where Eric Veillette selects a black-and-white gem from the aluminum catalogue of 16mm reels. Silent Sundays is one of many special programs that the theatre puts on, in homage to the repertory programming that’s been going on inside this theatre for the past hundred years. The year 2012 marks the Revue’s proud centennial anniversary (read about it in the Summer issue), and not only to a theatre in Toronto, but one of the oldest in Canada. But the biggest and most blaring question is whether this birthday will be its last.
When the Revue closed in 2006 with owner Peter McQuillan’s passing, the Roncesvalles community swooped to the theatre’s aid. Residents Danny and Leticia Mullin purchased the Revue, and thanks to a concerted effort by business owners and the Revue Film Society in fundraising and volunteer services, the show went on.
However with another anniversary comes another lease renewal, which is a paramount issue under the theatre’s new management. Since October 2011, Andy Willick and Daniel Demois have stepped in as general managers to the Revue, employed under the not-for-profit Revue Board. They manage Fox Theatre too. “The issue we’re facing with the Revue is the process of negotiating our lease,” says Willick. “The lease at the Revue is currently quite expensive—substantially higher than the Fox’s lease, and I’d even say above the market price what the lease should be. So we’re trying to negotiate the lease down with the landlord. A lot of people don’t realize that they actually pay rent here and it’s actually quite substantial. They actually pay all the costs associated with the building, including the property tax and all the utilities as well.”
At its core, Willick and Demois’ job is to run a movie theatre; make a strong program an run events. “We want the theatre to be ongoing and improving and run more programs, rather than this ‘help us, help us’ kind of situation. And the Roncesvalles community has been really supportive, and I don’t think the Revue Board wants to take that for granted. They’re supportive in their attendance and also to funds they donated at the beginning.”
Willick, who comes from a family in the not-for-profit sector, is familiar with the delicate balancing act of fundraising. “There’s lots of not-for-profits who don’t meet their operating budget from an annual basis and have to fundraise the difference, right? The thing is, the Revue can be sustainable,” declares Willick. “That’s the real issue here. This theatre was one of the better grosses in the Festival Chain [the Kingsway, the Paradise, the Royal, the Revue, the Fox, and the Music Hall], it did much better than the Fox previously. So there’s not good reason to be subsidizing this theatre just to pay a rent that is exorbitant. The reason why the theatre isn’t sustainable is that we’re paying too much money. So, should we be asking the community to subsidize the landlord? I personally don’t think that’s the right approach.”
Instead, the managers are trying to whittle down the lease, in order to move on to bigger and better things. The future of film fantastically in 3D and digital film, a trail in which Fox Theatre blazes ahead. Willick and Demois hope to renovate the sound system, projector and screen at the Revue in order to showcase the kind of aesthetic and theatrical offerings that they’ve seen succeed at Fox Theatre, which cost $78, 000 alone for the system upgrade. ]
“At the Fox we’ve done ’80s film festivals,” says Willick, “There’s all these things that will always work – The Big Lebowski, ET, Princess Bride.” Well aware that rep titles will run side-by-side with Blockbuster hits and art-house productions, Willick speculates, “I think what you’ll see is more theatres like the Fox and the Revue playing a chunk of the second-run stuff. Like art, and outside-the-mainstream stuff, while also having rep titles. The way we’ve doing it at the Fox, is that we’re trying to time our rep programming a little bit more intelligently. So our best month of the year is generally between Boxing Day and April, and generally a pretty good time for second-run theatre. It doesn’t make sense to play rep titles; those are a bit more of a risk. Whereas in May, June, July, sometimes you’re a bit shorter on good quality product because of Blockbuster season, and Blockbuster only work on single-screen. So that’s when we generally will play more repertory titles.” Willick pauses, then states confidently, “I don’t think by any means you’ll see repertory dying out completely, but it’s just going to have to transition maybe into a smaller role. Even if you look at Cineplex, they’re playing a bigger repertory role too, because they’re busting out these digital classics, or whatever it is they’re calling them, and they’re doing a festival.”
At one hundred years, old things have the tendency to fall off the radar. Looking ahead, that’s a saving act that Willick and Demois have been rehearsing for. “I think we’re in a weird transitional time in film business,” says Willick. Fox Theatre has already digitized their film, and custom-built a Wii-bar along with installing a video projector for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. If technological renovations at the Fox is any indication of what’s to come for the Revue, Willick looks at Princess Bride to explain.
“A lot of the studios are completely junking their 35mm collections–Fox is junking 70 per cent of their collection—and studios are not inclined to replace films that are falling apart. So Princess Bride is a perfect example. There are only a set number of prints of Princess Bride in Canada. So Princess Bride is probably not among that, but probably the Princess Bride they have isn’t so good. So, we’re kind of on a cusp of a pretty big transition in the film business. As people are transitioning to digital equipment we’re going to be seeing more digital copies of these classics. To the point hopefully, where a huge amount of this catalogue will be digitized. And then programming’s going to be a lot more important.”
It’s no surprise that Toronto is a hub of activity when it comes to film festivals, especially since the TIFF Lightbox officially moved in, bringing with it a worldwide starry host. Equally a rival as it is a creative challenge, Willick is optimistic at the position of rep theatre in Toronto’s entertainment landscape.
“The trend I’m seeing with bigger festivals like Hot Docs will rent out satellite, we’ll call them, independent theatres, to try to tap into different neighbourhoods with their programming,” says Willick.
“In 2011, both the Fox and the Revue did Hot Docs and Inside Out screenings. I think we sold out shows at the Fox last year with Hot Docs. And I think with the Revue they came really close. So there’s some success to be had with that and I think working with those small film festivals who are good marketers, is mutually beneficial for sure.” What Willick calls, satellite, is a good system, as long as each actor plays a part. “For something like TIFF, now they have their own home, and TIFF used to do some screening at the Bloor for Midnight Madness. But now it’s not really the independent theatres that they’re accessing to do that stuff.”
When I spoke to Willick in the spring about celebratory plans for the Revue’s triple-digit year, Willick was hesitant to make a big splash. “There’s a wealth of ideas,” says Willick. “Especially on the Revue Board. There’s a lot of smart people there who are good at their field and they have a lot to contribute to the theatre.” As though readying themselves for a grand finale that could cast more light than shadow on the end of a good thing, the Revue spilled forward their programming in high-definition, including a comedy film talk with YukYuk owner Mark Breslin; Shock and Awe, an all-night, B-film fest adopted from the Fox; a rep cinema tribute to cult classics shown in 35mm—and the list cut cleanly right at June, the time the lease was up for renewal.
But like a knight galloping in through ominous smoke, the resolution couldn’t have arrived at a better time. In late June, the lease was renewed with the existing landlord on the same terms. “I can’t tell you how the funds came in yet, but what this allows us to do is have a soft launch in August when the new digital projector will be installed. The turn over will be pretty short, and then we’ll throw a big party in October to celebrate our one-hundredth,” says Willick.
With the new digital projector, Willick expects that 95 to 98 per cent of the Revue programming will be shown in digital format, alongside archival and more obscure prints that don’t exist in digital format. “It’s sad to see 35mm going, but most are transfers, so they don’t look as good. There will be a huge improvement in the sound and quality, and festival will run a bit smoother. Instead of waiting and returning reels on loan, digital will allow us to repeatedly show films from a server, so there will be better access to the classics. But we’ll still keep the 35mm projector—why not?” he laughs.