Seeing Is Believing
'The Rep' charts the slow death of cinema-going
When Nigel Agnew, Charlie Lawton, and Alex Woodside launched the Toronto Underground Cinema in a vacant basement theatre two years ago, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Nor did filmmaker Morgan White, who approached them shortly after opening weekend proposing to make a comedy web series about day-to-day-operations at the Underground. "I had this kind of idyllic dream of what it was to run a cinema," White told the Chronicle. But it wasn't idyllic. Repairing broken 35mm projectors, hustling for print publicity, and building a creative program calendar turned out to be the easy parts of the job. The hard part was filling 679 seats. Most screenings drew around 20 customers. The near-empty auditorium belied a troubling story, White realized – not just about the tensions that can boil up between three friends staking all their time and energy on a chancy start-up, but about repertory theatres in peril all over North America.
As the film industry struggles through the digital transition – its greatest period of turmoil since the advent of sound – reps are struggling to survive. The Rep is the anatomy of this collective passion project. Some reps are for-profit, some are nonprofit, some are single-screen, others have two or three. What they all have in common is a commitment to showing classic movies. They play a vital role in film preservation because they keep the cinema-going experience alive.
In the last five years, the entirety of the exhibition sector has been hit with steeply declining ticket sales, thanks to the increasing viability of online streaming, downloads and hi-def video-on-demand. Meanwhile, theatres throughout North America have been phasing out their 35mm projectors (and projectionists) in favor of automated digital projection systems run by servers that can cost a hundred thousand dollars apiece. (These servers have a tendency to crash, as numerous festival disasters have borne out.) Many independent first-and-second-run theatres have folded due to the cost, but the situation is particularly bad for reps.
Reps don't want to go digital. For one thing, they like film as an analog medium. It has more texture, more warmth, more dimension than digital, they say. For another, they depend on 35mm print distribution for their programming. Studios are releasing new movies digitally, but they have little incentive to transfer their 35mm back catalogues to the same cinema-quality formats. As a result, only the most popular old movies are released in a format compatible with the new projection systems. Gone With The Wind is available, but Don Siegel's The Beguiled probably never will be, and it's the latter film that fits with the fundamental rep ethic of obscure, deep-cut programming. To top it all off, the studios are increasingly reluctant to strike new 35mm prints from old film negatives, creating a scarcity economy that allows them to raise rental costs.
Against this perfect storm of a backdrop, The Rep presents a year in the life of the Underground, interspersed with interviews with programmers at prominent rep houses, including Bruce Goldstein from Film Forum in New York City, Edward Schiessl from Bijou Art Cinemas in Eugene, Ore., and Austin's Lars Nilsen from the Alamo Drafthouse. As a film advocating 35mm presentation (albeit shot and presented digitally), The Rep offers a strong counterpoint to the recent Keanu Reeves-produced documentary Side By Side, a supposedly nonpartisan look at digital film production. In contrast to The Rep's passionate paean to purist cinephilia, Side By Side feels like an infomercial for Red digital cameras.
The film urgently encourages us to support our local repertory cinemas – tonight! We may not always have the chance. The point is driven home by an elegiac montage of faded marquees of over a dozen shuttered single-screen theatres. It evokes something Larry McMurtry wrote in his 1987 book Film Flam: "The dead picture shows ... make an unforgettable collective impression, structural Quixotes, exhausted and brought to rest by brute reality, yet retaining in the gaunt and stubborn angles of their facades a suggestion of the visions, cheap but romantic, that once rolled like great clouds across their screens."
The Rep screens Thursday, Oct. 18, 7:30pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, and Sunday, Oct. 21, 5pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse Village.