After surviving a near-death scare five years ago, the beloved Roncesvalles film house now faces the challenge of upgrading its equipment for a digital age. And it’s not going to be cheap.
Every independent neighbourhood movie theatre in Toronto is inherently a survivor, and none more so than the Revue Cinema.
The Roncesvalles landmark pulled through a near-death experience in 2006-07 thanks to community mobilization that revived it as a not-for-profit. This year, the Revue lives to see its 100th birthday. But the anniversary brings a challenge that no one could have envisioned in 1912: surviving the movie industry’s rapid and expensive transition from film to digital projection.
“That’s kind of the big scare for all independent theatres,” said General Manager Daniel Demois.
On Monday evening, Demois descended the creaky stairs from the Revue’s office and showed out two men who will upgrade the theatre’s ducts and ventilation. Their work will facilitate the installation of a piece of gear that will see the somewhat shopworn theatre into its second century: A digital projection system that is expected to cost somewhere between $80,000 and $90,000.
This is a necessity, not an extravagance. The major studios will stop distributing their releases in celluloid form as of January 2013. For independents that rely on second-run movies—titles that have recently run their course in major multiplexes but not yet reached DVD and on-demand services—it’s a case of catch up or shut down. Demois said the Revue’s lack of a digital projector has already cost it some business, as when it had to show Salmon Fishing in the Yemen a month later than the digitally equipped Fox Theatre in the Beach (which Demois owns with Andy Willick) because physical prints of the Ewan McGregor/Emily Blunt rom-com were scarce.
Who is supplying the funds for the new projector? Demois was mum, as was Kate Scullin*, a board member of the non-profit Revue Film Society. It’s a condition of the deal that they remain silent until an official announcement, they said. (But they spoke of an “application” for help, which suggests a government or not-for-profit fund as the source.)
The Revue was rescued by another white knight five years ago. It had been one of five small repertory theatres in the Festival Cinemas chain until June 2006, when the company dissolved itself so that the partners could retire. Following a June 30, 2006, screening of Lawrence of Arabia, the theatre went dark for more than a year. In Februrary 2007, its distinctive marquee, dating from 1935, crashed to the sidewalk under the weight of snow. Dreaming of its eventual restoration in some form is “the eternal question,” Scullin said.
In June 2007, local retirees Danny and Letty Mullin bought the building for $954,000 and rented it to the newly formed Revue Film Society, made up of volunteers mostly from the neighbourhood. They reopened the theatre and pursued a mixed-programming strategy, showing profitable second-run films to subsidize community events and mini-festivals. Japanese independent films dominate this weekend’s schedule, for example, while Hollywood hits Moonrise Kingdom and Prometheus follow the weekend after. Attendance is solid. “If the community is happy with the way things are going, they only have themselves to thank,” Demois said.
But if the The Revue’s business model is sustainable now, what happens if technological change speeds up this century? What if the big, shiny $90,000 projector becomes obsolete five years hence? Scullin frowned and mulled that over. “That’s a tough one, but hopefully we can continue to be flexible and adapt.”
CORRECTION, JULY 10, 2012: The original version of this article featured an incorrect last name for Kate Scullin.