The Rep is a solid Canadian documentary that follows just over a year of the lives of Charlie Lawton, Nigel Agnew, and Alex Woodside – a group of Canadians who open the Toronto Underground Cinema, a repertory theater. The three founders are all passionate about film, but face a range of difficulties as these fans of cinema become first-time business owners.
Over and over, this doc drives one particular point home: just because you do something that you love doesn’t mean that the work will go smoothly, or that your endeavor will be rewarded any time soon. After a great opening night, the theater barely sells 6 tickets per day. And a chance to screen 1966’s Batman and sell out the house suddenly turns hellish as a scheduling miscommunication with Adam West’s handlers nearly sinks the whole event.
This movie shows how hard people have to struggle to make a second-run entertainment venue work – as you hear from through a variety of interviews with Americans and Canadians, these places are ultimately attractions, and you really have to go above and beyond to attract people to them.
We see the famous New Beverly Cinema in LA, and learn that it was saved by a white knight: Quentin Tarantino bought the building and allowed the cinema to run at a loss. We also get to hear from one of repertory film’s most successful devotees – Lars Nilsen, a programmer at the Alamo Drafthouse, which has expanded to many cities outside of its original Texan location. And, although many interviewees remain passionate, it’s sad for any film-lover to hear that this kind of second-run theater is, of necessity, a money-losing operation.
The Rep, then, not only deals with this particular theater, but with the current state of these kinds of movie houses. Director George A. Romero reveals that he has a well-stocked screening room in his home, and that that is the only theater he attends. And the outspoken John Waters discusses how much one has to work to garner attention for and promote these kinds of events. The popularity of home video comes up, naturally, as does the fact that new movies will always draw larger groups more easily than most any old release.
I like that we get to hear from other Canadian repertory owners in Toronto and Montreal, and that their American counterparts get to speak up as well. If we stayed only with Nigel, Alex, and Charlie, we would only receive the opinions of three struggling theater operators. Since their Batman ’66 screening was followed by such a slow spell that they had to shut down for a month, this trio would provide a fairly one-sided view of the overall story.
Yet even people involved with more successful venues can explain how hard it is to choose between classic old films and popular ones that will draw bigger crowds, how difficult it is to ensure that fans will become aware of and attend a screening… Beyond the struggle of our three main figure, this whole micro-industry faces huge problems.
And, if the on-the-scene footage of the failing TUC doesn’t convey it, The Rep has other ways of making its points. One long montage shows a variety of closed cinemas throughout North America, and I’m not sure what’s sadder – when these beautiful buildings shuttered, when they’ve been replaced by little shops or large businesses that lack the character of the former occupants. We get to see the demolition of the Baronet in Asbury Park – and I felt bad, though I’d never heard of it.
On a more dramatic note, we also get the interpersonal tension between three business owners who end up with great friction over their underperforming venture. Hundreds of people on social media promote one of their events, but almost nobody actually shows up. One of the bosses has never had a job before, and he doesn’t do his job as thoroughly or professionally as his partners expect. And no one can stay too friendly when they have to choose between paying their own rent or paying their suppliers. It’s as interesting to watch them fight with each other as it is to watch them adjust their plans and expectations.
Atom Egoyan and Kevin Smith appear, if briefly, to relay some thoughts on the importance of movie houses and the allure of older pictures. Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at the Film Forum also chimes in with some of his own experiences.
If anything, though, what’s missing is interviews with more casual film lovers. It’s one thing to get the opinions of people who work in or own these repertory cinemas, but their experience is colored by their professional status. Other film buffs could have been able to describe what makes them attend (or not) a second run viewing, or how they think these theaters could change to improve attendance. This movie’s focus makes sense, but since fan-abandonment is such an issue, then the fans should have a voice here, too.
The Rep is a smart, if imperfect, documentary with a narrow focus. It doesn’t waste any of its 100 minute running time. There is no narration, although the interviews are so on-point that they often feel like it. And the scenes often contain a time stamp that creates drama since the prior scene showed the three subjects talking about how important “tomorrow’s” turnout will be.
Better yet, the movie looks lovely: it is filled with fine shots, and when I tried to stream the video to my TV, I just couldn’t bear the change in color and loss of resolution. I had to watch it on a smaller screen, out of respect for the neat cinematography. Bonus points go to the fine closing credits sequence.
This documentary is right when it explains how movies are not simply popular, they are transformative. What someone sees on a big screen can have a profound impact on their lives, professionally, emotionally, artistically.. The Rep is smart in making a case for repertory theaters as a way to educate and reward people with a passion for film. As an owner of San Francisco’s Red Vic Theater so beautifully states, it’s all about a group of strangers “dreaming in the dark together.”