The warm darkness of the theatre, the incandescent glow of the screen, the entrancing pull of its images — it seems a lifetime ago when you could go to the cinema and disappear into the lives of strangers for an evening.
COVID-19’s seismic impact on the film industry leaves independent theatres in an especially vulnerable economic position. With their main source of income compromised by necessary government lockdowns, Toronto’s cinemas are having to find creative ways to stay afloat. They hope that when it is safe to do so, their magic can be rediscovered.
At the beginning of the pandemic, The Fox, a beloved community cinema in The Beaches, rallied community support by selling naming rights to seats, which quickly sold out. The theatre also began selling takeout popcorn, candy, wine, and beer every Saturday.
Similarly, Paradise Theatre on Bloor Street has been promoting its sister shops, a takeout restaurant and an online bottle shop.
The Revue, a heritage site and Toronto’s oldest standing in-use movie theatre, sells front-door concessions every Friday and Saturday. The concessions include popcorn — a local favourite — beer, cider, and candy.
“We just finished a very successful seat sale in December, but for those who missed out and would still like to help support the cinema, they can make a donation to the cinema through our website,” wrote David Ball, chairman of the Revue Film Society, in an email to The Varsity.
Some theatres have moved beyond selling food and merchandise. Instead, they’ve found ways to engage with the public culturally. The Fox now offers virtual screenings throughout the week, for which patrons can purchase tickets on their website. The Revue also hosts virtual events, and The Royal, a local cultural landmark in Little Italy, is gearing up for a future of online gatherings.
“In the near future we will be offering the venue to web cast events from our stage, use the theatre for creating live to internet events and virtual gatherings,” wrote Dan Peel, an owner of Theatre D, the company that owns The Royal.
While not preferable to in-person screenings, virtual gatherings offer an opportunity for theatres to expand their memberships outside the city. Online screenings also provide patrons a way of viewing films that are obscure and otherwise difficult to locate online.
While some cinemas opt to hold online screenings, others generate revenue by contributing to the production process of the films they might someday screen. Before the pandemic, The Royal screened independent art films, as well as recent releases and second-run features. During the day the theatre functioned as a rehearsal space and as a studio for rent. The theatre also houses one of the country’s most sophisticated post-production facilities.
“We have still been able to operate as a post production facility, mixing sound for films by day albeit [a] reduced volume of work due to a slow down generally in independent film production in the province,” wrote Peel.
Cinemas are long-standing stalwarts of community identity, adding cultural vibrancy to Toronto’s local scene. It is comforting to know that they are continuing to find ways to thrive amid these disruptions. However, with no imminent end to the pandemic on the horizon, it is important for us to keep local independent art spaces functioning so that, in the better days ahead, we can all crowd into movie theatres once again.