It was the Cinéma du Parc's final night: a 9:40 PM screening of Eraserhead and then... nothing. After seven years as Montreal's only English-language repertory cinema-the only place to catch films such as, yes, Eraserhead-the Parc would be shutting its doors for good. There was a buzz of anticipation in the air, as if something spectacular would happen. Hours before the final screening, an old lady had taped a "Petition to Save the Cinema du Park" to the box office counter; a sweet, futile gesture. But nothing did happen. There was no surprise announcement of a last-minute reprieve, no teary speeches or visits from local celebrities. The Parc, as usual, showed a good movie to an enthusiastic audience. And then it closed.
News of the Parc's closure came as a shock to film-loving Montrealers. In retrospect, though, it shouldn't have been a surprise. Change had been afoot since the beginning of the year when the cinema's programmer and former owner, Don Lobel, was unexpectedly fired. Mitch Davis, his partner, resigned in solidarity, leaving a hole in the Parc's program where classic and cult films had been. When it finally closed, there was a lingering feeling that Montreal had seen this all before. The Parc isn't the first good cinema to close in this town and it certainly won't be the last. In fact, this isn't even the first time the Cinéma du Parc has died; until this latest closure, it was on its fourth life.
Still, there's something worrisome about this latest turn of events. The Parc isn't the only repertory theatre in North America to have recently closed; its demise is part of a continental trend. What is happening to our movie theatres?
Located beneath the intersection of Parc and Prince Arthur on the fringes of downtown Montreal, in an underground shopping centre connected to a hulking complex of apartment towers, the Cinéma du Parc was born in 1977 with a name that can only be described as banal: La Cité 3. The three-screen multiplex format was novel at the time, but by the early 1990s, the cinema had fallen into obscurity. Its owner bailed, but the theatre was rescued by two film-loving brothers, Thierry and Éric Martin, who transformed it into a classic art house.
It was a smooth run until the beginning of 1999, when the Martin brothers became embroiled in a bitter personal and financial dispute and the theatre suddenly looked set to collapse. That's when Don Lobel, a film professor and former manager of the Rialto, another famous Montreal rep house, stepped in. He bought the Parc and relaunched it with a film schedule unmatched in its ambition. Retrospectives of notable directors, second-run releases and local premiers pulled in the crowds. Cult and midnight movie screenings made the Parc the local epicentre of genre cinema. By the time the revamped Parc celebrated its second anniversary, attendance had exceeded expectations and the Parc had become an indispensable part of Montreal's cultural life. "We may be the most extraordinary rep on Earth," declared a cocky Lobel.
Mitch Davis remembers those early years fondly. Davis was in charge of the Parc's retro, cult and midnight movie programming (and is currently Director of International Programming for the Fantasia Festival, North Americaƒ's largest genre film festival). "In its glory," he tells me, "it was a cultural free-for-all that sprawled from art house to grind-house. For a good three years, there were more titles onscreen at the Parc than at any other Canadian rep cinema, which we were very proud of." The Parc's success attracted the attention of Daniel Langlois, a local software mogul and film lover whose Ex-Centris film centre is a sleek, trendy counterpart to the Parc. In 2001, Langlois' company bought the Parc and spent one million dollars replacing the seats, screens and projectors.
Langlois kept Lobel and Davis on as programmers, but it was clear that he was not acting purely out of charity. With the renovations came an increased focus on profit. Lobel and Davis were ordered to scale back screenings of rare films and show more first-run features. But the crowds began to thin. By late last year, the lineups that once snaked up the Parc's box office stairs had disappeared.
That's when Lobel was fired and Davis resigned. Six months later, when the Parc's closure was formally announced, the Groupe Daniel Langlois cited "major market share changes" as the reason behind the decline in attendance. What they meant was that, on one hand, the young adults and university students who traditionally attended the Parc were increasingly staying at home to watch movies on DVD or download them from the Internet. On the other hand, a major downtown multiplex several kilometres to the west, the AMC Forum, had started buying the same first-run independent and foreign films as the Parc. "The Parc was stuck dividing an already limited audience with a neighbouring Godzillaplex," says Davis. "That was the beginning of the end in terms of both our box office and our ability to stand apart."
The story could end there; after all, the life of a repertory cinema is notoriously precarious. But Montreal is not your average North American city. It plays host to some of the most daring and innovative film festivals in the world, including the avant-garde Festival du Nouveau Cinéma and the gleefully off-kilter Fantasia. But as the number of film fests in Montreal inexorably increases, with over a dozen big ones last year, the number of arthouses and repertory cinemas continues to dwindle. For whatever reason, film festivals don't always translate into subsequent big patronage for local rep cinemas. Davis recalls one instance when, in 1999, he booked several screenings of ƒA Gun for Jennifer, a film that drew sold-out crowds at the 1997 edition of Fantasia. He assumed its run at the Parc would generate similar enthusiasm. He was wrong. "About ninety people came over something like four screenings. It was ridiculous," he says. "In the context of a film festival, titles get boosted by event atmosphere energy," Davis explains. "Each screening is a happening and there's an excitement there that doesn't always exist in the more straightforward world of theatrical exhibition. But I don't really understand it."
At least one cinema is trying to recreate that event atmosphere in its everyday programming-that is, if it's ever able to screen a film again. This year, Toronto was hit even harder than Montreal by repertory closures: when the Festival Cinemas chain folded in the spring, it dragged four theatres down with it. One of them was the Revue, a West End landmark tucked away on Roncesvalles Avenue. When the cinema's closure was announced, staff and nearby residents banded together to save it. So far, a grassroots door-knocking and internet campaign has raised $22,000; they need $80,000 by September to reopen the Revue. Next month, a fundraising event is planned that will include "celebrity MCs" and a number of as-yet-unnamed Toronto bands.
Even if the Revue reopens, though, it will be a challenge to simply run it. Over the phone, Sarah Kiriliuk, the Revue's head of PR and marketing, tells me with bubbling enthusiasm of their plans for the future. "We realize we have to have a really strong strategy for sponsorship and other means of fundraising," she says, adding that distinguishing the Revue from mainstream multiplexes and other arthouses will also be key. "We're really trying to have creative programming, creative sponsorship and fundraising. We want to make the Revue a destination cinema." Some ideas include evenings sponsored by corporations or local businesses ("We could get Canadian Tire to sponsor an evening of home-and-gardening-type movies," she says, "although off the top of my head I can't think of anything that would fit that bill") and tying homages, retrospectives and mini-festivals to the hype surrounding the numerous Hollywood productions and celebrities that find themselves in Toronto. The Revue has a secret weapon, too: if and when it reopens, it will be a non-profit organization, which will not only open the door to government grants and tax breaks, but allow it to reinvest any profit it does make.
Keith Dunning, who rose from popcorn boy to manager in his fourteen years at the Revue, understands but refuses to accept the increasing individualization of the film-going experience. "There's something kind of tawdry about watching a good movie on TV by yourself, sort of like eating a good meal out of a plastic bowl," he remarks. "This is going to be one of our strategies: the way we're showing [these films] is the way they were meant to be seen. There still is an ineffable magic about going out to the movies. That's basically what we'll have to trade on." ƒ"Like a good film festival, a rep cinema creates an atmosphere that unites and inspires cineastes and artists," says Davis. "I absolutely love DVDs [but nothing] rivals the experience of seeing a film as an actual photochemical element. Not only is the look and impact of the film an incomparable experience, but there's a communal energy and magic that can never be replicated digitally, let alone in isolation." Matthew Hays, former film critic at the Montreal Mirror, shares Davis' opinion, "There's just something fun about the communal experience of gathering with a bunch of strangers to watch a strange movie." He chuckles. "It's part of urban life."
Part of the repertory cinema's appeal is that, like a museum or an art gallery, it is curated by an expert. Mainstream theatres show the most profitable movies; rep cinemas show the best ones. Without these types of movie theatres, the seventh art would be reduced to a mere business, a paint-by-numbers parody of itself. So why, then, are repertory theatres left alone to struggle? Montreal is lucky enough to have the Cinémathèque québécoise, funded by the provincial government, which collects prints and screens retrospectives and homages in a state-of-the-art facility. But even the Cinémathèque is perennially short of cash. It would be naive to expect any level of government to release enough money to keep privately-run alternative cinemas alive. Still, if Canada's governments are interested in promoting local culture, it would be in their own interest to fund not just the production of Canadian films but the screens on which they are shown. Government funding and Canadian content regulations, whatever their faults, built the Canadian music industry. Funding repertory cinemas could do the same for Canadian film.
Then there are the festivals, which have a mixed track record of supporting repertory cinemas. In Montreal, the World Film Festival bought and renovated the gorgeous Imperial Cinema, long a beloved arthouse, but it has not restored regular programming and uses it only sparingly. In Vancouver, by contrast, the Vancouver International Film Festival worked with the city and a property developer to build a new film complex beneath two condo towers. The sleek, glassy building is a first-rate repertory cinema operated with financial assistance from a local bank, the Vancouver Sun, Telefilm Canada and Starbucks. So what about the Parc? It has always been creatively connected to Fantasia and a rumour is floating around that the festival is planning to buy the cinema. Davis, however, is adamant that there is no such deal in the making. "Most Montreal festivals are struggling just to have enough cash to operate on the scale the public expects of them," he points out.
Many are pessimistic about the future of repertory cinemas. A recent LA Times story revealed that many teenagers and young adults, the core movie-going demographic, simply don't like going to the movies as much as they once did. "One hopes this is a blip, but I don't think it is. It's part of a larger trend in new technology," says Hays. Nevertheless, Davis takes a brighter view of the situation. "The people who don't mind seeing a full feature film on their iPod are not... I mean, the people who go to the Beaubien, Fantasia or the Festival of New Cinema wouldn't be the ones that you see walking in and out and sending text messages to their friends during screenings at a mainstream multiplex, you know?" With the Parc closed and other cinemas unlikely to pick up the slack, many films simply will not be screened in Montreal outside of festivals. It's unclear, though, whether filmgoers are ready to accept such a dramatic reduction in choice.
Some, it would seem, are not. Shortly before it closed, the Groupe Daniel Langlois announced that a buyer intent on "maintaining the Parc's mission" has entered into negotiations to purchase the cinema. Even if the Parc is revived, though, its survival is not guaranteed. Do Montrealers have what it takes to keep repertory cinema alive?