The September 2019 Senses of Cinema Dossier asks contributors to identify one central feature that has shaped and influenced cinema over the last decade. For my contribution, I did what I always do when I attempt any cinematic sense-making– I turned towards the people watching it. Undeniably, sorting out the diverse range of cinematic audiences and spectatorial experiences since 1895 is one the central ever-ongoing sense-making projects of cinema. But for the sake of the Dossier’s special focus, let’s indulge together in flattening out the history of this new millennium for a brief 1000 words.
Throughout the first decade of the 2000s, you couldn’t escape the crisis of the “death of cinema,” inspired by Susan Sontag’s infamous decree of the rise of megaplexes and industry.1 When I started my Master’s degree in Film Studies in 2009, the ontological debate was regurgitated in every class I attended. The rise of the digital meant the act of cinema – of movie making as a punctured memory-technology – was dead. With it, had died the act of cinema-going, propelled further by the internet’s promises of 24/7 availability and accessibility.
Of course, almost 20 years into this not-so-new millennium, we now know that (1) “cinema” didn’t die, (2) neither did cinema-going and (3) the internet was full of a lot of broken promises. But, as audience-going goes, the internet did inevitably change the very act of cinema-going. In 2010, cinema studies scholar Liz Czach called ours the “era of declining single-screen movie theatres.”2 With the rise of private cinematic home viewing distribution technologies, such as DVDs, Czach positioned the film festival as an increasingly privileged gathering site for cinephilic publics who gradually face fewer options to congregate. Eight years following the publication of Czach’s article, private viewing technologies have evolved even further, thanks to decreasing internet costs and heightening mobile networks improving home streaming. Significantly and undeniably related, programmed public gatherings and initiatives have also dramatically increased. There are currently said to be 3,000 active international film festivals with almost 75% having been created over the last fifteen years.3
In my home city of Toronto, where there is said to be 300+ film festivals of different size and stature, over the last 10 years there has also been a consistent rise of local, community repertoire programming in single-screen cinemas. I count 13 community/themed-programming series at The Revue (opened in 1911), 11 at The Royal (opened in 1939) and a slew of more irregular cult and camp series making their way to Toronto’s newly reopened single screen cinema The Grand Gerrard (originally The Bonita, opened 1911). In early 2019, programmer and critic Adam Cook called Toronto “a city blessed with several independent theatres that are finding ways to adapt to the times.” 4 These “times,” according to Cook is the Netflix-era of individualistic algorithmic programming, and these community-based programs respond to them with specialized curation, 16 or 35mm screenings, intelligently crafted curatorial notes, and even sometimes, food and drink themed menu-accompaniments. Cook’s article also suggests, against sometimes often popular opinion, that millennials are the core audiencing demographic for these serialized programs.
The series are enabled by local and communal interests, relationships and community initiatives. They often respond to local demographic needs and interests. Sarah-Tai Black’s started her “Black Gold” series at The Royal – “dedicated to celebrating the best and most vibrant of black screen icons and filmmakers from past to present” – to respond to the historically racial coded space of the cinema (in Toronto, and also, everywhere). She tells Cook: “I wanted to create a space where black people can see themselves on screen, but also see themselves reflected in the seats and the programming.” The series are often promoted through local outreach over social media – friends who know friends who know friends who might be interested are tasked with getting those initial bums in seats.
Toronto-based programmer Alicia Fletcher – who curates both the The Revue’s “Silent Revue” – featuring screenings of rare silent film prints with live accompaniment by Toronto Musicians – and The Royal’s “Ladies of Burlesque” – which pairs a classic film with a “complicated, dynamic and scintillating female lead” with a live Toronto-based burlesque performer – tells me that initially numbers were low for both of her programs. “It took a lot of work to make them successful, but I did it mostly by amping up the FOMO per screening.” Fletcher goes out of her way to curate rare 16mm film prints for Silent Revue and ensures her Ladies of Burlesque programming balances between intriguingly unknown and notoriously unmissable – like a sold-out 35-mm screening of Fire Walk With Me, on the eve of the release the newest season of Twin Peaks. “Pie, coffee, and donuts will be served; costumes are encouraged,” read the screening’s programming and promotional notes.
“The tie the binds both of my programs are elements of live performance and audience interaction,” Fletcher tells me. She justifies her programming by offering something megaplexes can’t: the nostalgia for a certain form of a “once in a lifetime” cinematic experience that has always kept people coming back to cinema and to the theatre. “In the 1920s and 1930s, it didn’t matter what was playing,” Fletcher continues, “but the cinema was the community centre and the act of theatre-going was the activity. That’s how I frame all of my programming.” Ten years since Fletcher’s first 2009 program, Silent Revue is definitely the longest running silent film series in Toronto, likely in Canada and maybe in the world. “They know my programming in Italy!” Fletcher tells me, excitedly.
In the second decade of the 2000s, in Toronto – and probably also in your own urban centre – something has shifting in favour of contextual, community-oriented cinema-going. Fueled by a blend of nostalgia and future-oriented spectatorship, many of us are increasingly pre-occupied by birthing some new kind of “cine-love,” unforgettably provoked in the last sentence of Sontag’s 1996 eulogy. Maybe we’ll continue to find it with our neighbours, like cinema asked us to do many decades ago, and maybe this sounds romantically idealistic, but I dare you to decline my invitation to share a donut and a movie with me.
- Susan Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema,” The New York Times, 25 Feb 1996 ↩
- Liz Czach, Liz, “Cinephilia, Stars, and Film Festivals,” Cinema Journal 49.2 (Winter 2010): 140 ↩
- Stephen Follows, https://stephenfollows.com/many-film-festivals-are-in-the-world/ ↩
- Adam Cook, “Chill, Netflix: Toronto’s indie theatres enjoy a moviegoing renaissance,” The Globe and Mail, 8 Jan 2019 ↩