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Repertory roll call 

Dear Coast,

OK, I can't take it any more.

Every 12 months or so The Coast runs an article about a non-existent repertory cinema in Halifax and reports on how they're not doing (like Shayla Howell's September 1 feature "Tarnished rep").

Why isn't there a repertory cinema in Halifax? The answer is simple: there isn't a large enough audience to support one. Times have changed since Wormwood's was around. Back then a DVD cost $80. Even VHS copies of foreign films could be very expensive. If you wanted to see a more diverse assortment of films than those offered by the large cineplex chains, Wormwood's was pretty much the only game in town. These days the quality of home entertainment technology and inexpensive DVDs has satisfied the demand for access to diversified cinema choices. For the less legally-minded, most films can be downloaded from the internet in a variety of image qualities—free, so to speak. In Halifax, once an indie, foreign or limited release film is available at rental outlets, experience has demonstrated that it is certainly not going to screen successfully at a theatre. In smaller communities, where rental choices can be very limited, a small theatre within driving distance can still show films on the big screen with success, even though a DVD has been released, if the DVD isn't available in the market area.

Notwithstanding this reality, there are a small number of cult films, or films with some lasting appeal, which can be shown from time to time with success (the 20-years-late Atlantic premiere of Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back organized by Erin Oakes, who programs the Monday Night Movies and is a selection committee member for the AFF; the ubiquitous, riotous and now banned due to gnarly audiences Rocky Horror Picture Show; the AFF's ongoing Signature Series; and recently Dead Man organized by big screen supporter Brian Nugent; etc). But not enough to pay the rent.

Why is there a repertory cinema in Charlottetown? Take a look at the films they show—mostly the same titles shown on Empire Theatres' screens here. Most small cinemas or screening projects in small communities survive because they are the only choice, or the only alternative. The Wolfville Film Circuit group consistently have sold-out shows, no matter what they show (within reason— Ginger Snaps for example, was shown there). Theatres or screening programmes in smaller communities can offer alternatives to the Empire cineplex offerings, because typically, only the blockbusters are circulated to smaller cineplexes. So a Film Circuit group showing, say, Goodbye Lenin (or Ginger Snaps) on a rented screen in a small cineplex away from Halifax makes some sense, since Empire probably isn't going to.

In Halifax, however, Empire did plan to show Goodbye Lenin, and the film's distributor pulled an existing Monday Night Movies booking in Empire's favour. But a subsequent hold-over of another film resulted in Goodbye Lenin not being shown downtown at all (although it did play at ViewFinders International Film Festival for Youth in Bayers Lake earlier that year). Film distributors are a fickle species and hold all the strings. Some will double-book venues within a market, without informing either party, as happened with Goodbye Lenin, Born Into Brothels, Palindromes and Murder Ball, to name a few.

The results can be inconvenient for a cineplex, bad for a festival, but potentially catastrophic for a small screening project, or a rep cinema. And it happens fairly often. Programming for a small venue or a festival in a town like Halifax is a fine balancing act and a talent possessed by perhaps 10 people in this city (of whom I am not one), none of whom have any plans to get involved with a repertory cinema here.

Since the departure of Famous Players (who screened only the most obvious of blockbusters) Empire Theatres finds itself with quite a few screens in the downtown core. Downtown is a markedly different film audience than in the 'burbs. So in Halifax, films like Goodbye Lenin stand a good chance of ending up at the Oxford or Park Lane. What that means is: many, or even most, of the new, indie, limited release films, which would be the bread and butter rent-payers of a repertory cinema, are already taken. Repertory cinemas have never survived financially on screenings of classic, "art" or niche interest films alone.

Empire Theatres has significantly diversified the available film choices downtown, showing many more independent and limited release titles than would have been possible with only the Oxford's one screen. They are also very supportive of the Atlantic Film Festival, the Jewish Film Festival and the Monday Night Movies ongoing screening series. These venues absorb pretty much everything viable left to choose from.

So what is a repertory cinema actually going to do in Halifax? Nobody with any experience or understanding of the cinema market in Halifax has an answer to that. Or put another way—a repertory cinema just isn't a viable idea right now, and likely won't be for a long time—if ever.

And what of the Paradise Cinema concept? The Coast's erstwhile reporter spent some time seeking someone in the industry who would speak "on the record." But it's a small town and most people have enough to do without getting involved in a tempest in a teapot. So while she was unable to provide readers with some juicy, pointed opinions from professionals in this area, neither was she able to report any enthusiastic endorsement by professionals of either the idea of a rep cinema nor its current champions. Ron Foley MacDonald reiterated some of his concerns, shared by most (privately, if not on the record), about the Paradise effort. As for a more blunt assessment—one must listen to the silence.

Wormwood's was a monumental and ongoing challenge for those who pretty much lived the experience. It required blood, sweat and tears at a level motivated by passion, close friendship and a true love of cinema. Made possible by the beyond-the-call efforts of a few, Wormwood's was barely sustainable then. It would be impossible now. Fundraising, along with the $25,000 provided by the Halifax Regional Municipality (which presumably wasn't desperately needed by any youth projects, women's shelters, daycares or such luxuries in the area), may eventually get a rep theatre's doors open, but it will not keep them open long.

As for the rest of us, see you at the movies!

By Will Roberts, Monday Night Movies lackey, AFF photographer, AFCO


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