The first movie memory I have is from when I was six years old. Disney had just released Aladdin and the King of Thieves and my mom took me to see it at The Fox, the neighbourhood cinema just down the street from where we lived. My love of film started there, in a hundred-year-old cinema, complete with rickety reclining seats, ample leg room and clanking pipes in the walls that asserted themselves at the most inopportune times. Needless to say, rep cinemas loom large in my cinematic experience and to this day, I’d rather watch a film at one of the handful of independent cinemas across Toronto instead the any of the big box multiplexes.
Rep cinemas are characters unto themselves. Unlike the big cookie-cutter multiplexes, each one has its own personality and offers a unique movie-going experience that can’t be found anywhere else. While the chain cinemas remain cold and distant, the smaller, neighbourhood cinemas are warm and inviting. They allow their patrons to feel some ownership over them. The Fox is my theatre. I take an interest in its well-being and go out of my way to support it. I am more likely to buy concessions or see films I’m not very interested in there because I want it to thrive. Most of the smaller neighbourhood cinemas inspire similar feelings in their community. Like an old friend, they are familiar and comfortable.
Rep cinemas are neighbourhood hubs. They are a place for the community to gather, where people go for entertainment with friends, on dates, or for some alone time. Not only is the cinema itself familiar, the people who frequent it are as well. You get to know the staff and the other filmgoers. The person who sells you your ticket or popcorn isn’t just a random, constantly changing person; they are someone who takes the time to chat about movies or the theatre. The staff, like the patrons, have a connection to the cinema, and feel some agency over it. They are not a small cog in a giant machine – they are an integral part of the running of the establishment. This sense of community makes rep cinemas a breeding ground for film buffs. These are buildings steeped in cinematic history. Many have been standing for the better part of a century. Toronto’s The Fox, The Revue and The Bloor hold the distinction of being some of the oldest cinemas in North America. The programmers tend to mix retrospectives and more obscure indie releases in with the more general fare found at the major first run theatres.
Unlike rep theatres, attending a large multiplex gives the feeling of constantly being bombarded. Video screens are everywhere, pushing upcoming films, actors and products. The snack bar sells every kind of junk food imaginable for inflated prices. The onslaught continues inside the theatres. There is at least half an hour of a pre-show, which is followed by another 10 minutes of adverts before the 5 minutes of trailers. Everything is geared towards getting people to spend. The film is the enticement to get bodies into the cinema to buy the stuff that really makes the money. Rep cinemas, on the other hand, are invested in the experience of watching films. Sure they want to make money, but that is not their raison d’être. What ads do exist are minimal and usually promote local businesses as opposed to international corporations. Concessions are more varied, with gourmet options instead of fast food ones and the prices are much more reasonable. A popcorn and drink will cost you closer to $10 than the almost $20 for the same thing at a multiplex. Instead of worrying about the bottom line, rep cinemas are concerned with giving their clientele the best possible movie going experience they can.
Each theatre has its own way of fostering an appreciation for the art of film. The Lightbox specializes in older films, while also showing new releases of foreign and national independent films. The Bloor Cinema primarily screens documentaries, most of which get no release elsewhere in the city. The Fox decorates its walls with old movie posters and hosts a variety of obscure film festivals, including The Toronto Silent Film Festival and The Beaches Film Festival. The Royal operates as a television and film post-production studio during the day. The Revue has a diverse array of unique programming including several lecture series and silent retrospectives. Highlands Cinemas houses an extensive film museum that spans the halls, complete with hundreds of old film projectors, movie props, costumes and posters. The theatres themselves (there are five) also contain pieces of cinema history having been pieced together from the remnants of 450 small theatres from across Canada. As you watch the latest big budget Hollywood offering, you are surrounded by film history and everything that makes movies magic happen. It is quite possibly the coolest place to see a film in the country.
When I was in high school my family used to rent a cottage for a couple of weeks every summer up in the Kawarthas, usually about a half hours drive from Kinmount, where the Highlands Cinemas are located. As nice as it was to be by a lake up in the quite northern forests, going to see films at the Highlands was always the best part of the trip. We’d always arrive extremely early to give us time to wander through the packed halls of film paraphernalia. I’m not sure if what was there actually ever changed, but each time was different and exciting. There was so much stuff packed into the tiny hallways that it was impossible to take it all in in a single visit. My love of film may have begun at six years old in a hundred-year-old Toronto theatre, but my love of film history and theory began in the cluttered halls of this backwoods cinema. It’s where I saw the final Harry Potter film. The Highlands created the perfect environment to cap that chapter of my life. In a place that celebrates the past, while moving towards the future.
Where the multiplex exists to sell, the rep cinema exists to keep the movie going tradition alive. Rep theatres are owned and attended by people who love the movies. Just walking through the doors of any of these theatres is an experience and there are always interesting people to meet. Watching a film in a rep theatre isn’t just entertainment, each one cinema is a learning experience, giving more insight into the magic that is motion pictures.