Alex Woodside, Charlie Lawton, and Nigel Agnew love movies of all kinds. You can tell. Their favourites range from The Dark Knight to The Godfather to Casablanca and back again to The Big Lewbowski. That's why maybe they're just the right guys to have opened their own theater in downtown Toronto. Toronto Underground Cinema, at Queen and Spadina, is the brainchild of three cinema geeks, buffs, aficionados, whatever you want to call them. Lawton, Woodside and Agnew all came together to open their one screen, 700 seat cinema at 186 Spadina Ave. in an abandoned basement screening space. The Underground got it's kick start on Friday May 14 with a free double feature of Clue and Big Trouble in Little China and opened its doors again two days later for a Jim Henson tribute with Muppets Take Manhattan and Labyrinth. Not strangers to the Toronto film scene, Lawton tells me he is both writer and director and will have his work featured in an upcoming horror anthology film called The Last, which can be expected some time next year. And as for Agnew and Woodside, well they are former employees of the Bloor Cinema where they also put their creative juices to work, creating a trilogy of short films entitled The Popcorn Trilogy (Agnew starred and Woodside produced). And yet, at their heart, these are just three guys who seem to be in love with the cinema and all it's shapes and forms. Where else, after all, will you find a place in Toronto that will show you both The Runaways (Coming Saturday May 29) and The Muppets on the same screen? Or how about Clue and A Prophet (May 28 and 30)? You get the picture. In that sense, despite the local competition of both first and second-run theaters, you get the feeling that these three are doing this for the very best of reasons, one that any movie lover could appreciate: to create an outlet to share the films they love with as many people as possible. "This is our dream, we all love movies, we love cinema, and we’re doing this for love, and we hope that people will come out and support that. And we hope that we provide a space for people to come and enjoy a movie experience they can’t get anywhere else," says Lawton.
From Left: Lawton, Agnew and Woodside
I had the privilege of conducting an e mail based interview with Lawton just after the opening weekend of Toronto Underground Cinema. Check out what he had to say:
Me: How did the idea for The Underground originate?
Lawton: Alex [Woodside] found out about the space in the fall of 09, and due to being too busy with some other projects, passed up on doing anything with it.Then in January he told me about it and I basically hit him on the back of the head and told him he was an idiot for passing that up. Then I got in touch with Nigel and the two of us contacted the owner and purposed that we could provide the infrastructure for the business and run it for him. For a month or so Nigel and I worked on a business plan, and in that time Alex’s previous projects came to an end so he was free and we asked him to help us out. Then the three of us set to work on getting the theatre up and running.
M: Was the idea created after finding a location or was this something that you guys had in mind and it just so happened that you came across this location?
L: Alex and Nigel had worked at the Bloor [Cinema] previously, and I was a frequent patron of the theatre, as well the three of us worked on Jurassic Park the Shadow Cast (ed. this is where people act out scenes from the movie while it is playing) together in the summer of 09. We became good friends, and we all loved movies. While they worked at the Bloor,we’d always talk about different events and things we’d love to play, and then after they left the Bloor we’d have long talks about what we’d do if we ran a movie theatre. So the idea was always there in abstract, but it wasn’t until Alex told me about the space and the three of us started working on the idea did it really come together into something tangible.
M: There's a lot of local competition with both first and second-run theatres nearby. How does The Underground plan of differentiate itself and offer people something that they can't get elsewhere?
L: The Underground is going to be an event space. We’ll be showing the typical second run fair, as well as showing events of our own and throwing in some classic films. But what we hope will make it different is the feeling you get when watching a film here. There will be a buzz in the air, the audience will be positively charged. I don’t mean they will be loud and boisterous, even an audience that is sitting quiet, but is there to see a film they love has a great vibe to it. That’s what we’re hoping that’ll make us different, it’ll be filled with people who not only want to see the movie, but love cinema. It’s certainly run by those types.
M: Once you are up and running on a regular basis, how will you juggle providing both newer things that will draw in crowds on a regular basis while also retaining your status as a unique underground cinema that shows films like Clue or the Muppets movies?
L: It’s all about finding a balance. We’re planning on experimenting with lots of different programming, to see what works for us as a theatre, and what works for the fans and for the community surrounding us. We definitely won’t lose the more cult and “genre” films, because that’s what we love and it’s what drew us to starting a theatre. If we wanted to just show only mainstream fair we’d have submitted our resumes to a Cineplex.
M: Are there plans to incorporate more mainstream fare and if so how will it be decided what should be shown and what should be left for the Cineplexes of the world?
L: Again, it’s all about finding the right balance for this space. We’re not so in love with the genre films that we shun mainstream films. My favourite film is Dark Knight and you can’t get much more mainstream than that. The week before our theatre opened the three managers went to go see the midnight opening of Iron Man 2. We love mainstream films just as much as the stuff on the fringes. I look at it like this: we love movies; it doesn’t matter if it’s a small indie release or if it’s a multibillion dollar blockbuster.
M: What is your opinion on the current state of independent cinema and, more specifically, the filmmaking climate in Toronto?
L: I think it’s both a really hard time for indie film makers, as well as a golden age. It’s a golden age because the technology is available for someone to go out and make a movie easily, and if you have the skill to use it correctly, you can make a film look amazing with some basic tools. But that’s also why it’s so hard; the market is literally flooded, so it’s hard to get your voice heard. But I love the filmmaking climate of Toronto. I’m a film maker myself and I love the film community here. It’s through them and the good friends I’ve made that I got to direct my first film, a segment of a horror anthology film called The Last, due out next year. Before moving to Toronto, I lived in Pontypool, out in the middle of nowhere, and it’s nearly impossible to get anything made without the help, support and aid of a good group of friends and fellow film makers. And I love Toronto for that: it’s filled with film makers; all who have great ideas and want to help each other out.
On a bigger scale I love seeing the stuff David Cronenberg, Bruce MacDonald, Atom Egoyan, Don Mckeller, and Sarah Polley are doing, as well as many others. I’m a big fan of Canadian cinema.
M: Why do you think there is a demand for such a cinema right now?
L: I think it’s a void that the city needs filling, there’s a few small cinema events that go on monthly, but I feel that there’s a want for more. It’s easier by the day to watch a movie at home. Everyone can pick up a DVD or Blu-Ray, or video on demand on the computer, and that just doesn’t have the same feel as seeing a film in a cinema. And I think people are realising that: it’s not just the movie, it’s the whole experience you get at a cinema: the small of the popcorn, the electricity in the air from the crowd, and sitting in a hushed room, getting lost in a film. For two hours you are sucked into a film and all your problems are forgotten. It’s a little bit of magic.
M: Given the economy and the rarity of big studios trying to take chances of riskier projects, is it now harder than ever for a theatre of this nature not only to open, but to survive?
L: It’s definitely not easier, but I think over all the only thing we have to worry about is the audience. If they keep showing up, we’ll have no problem surviving.
M: Did the opening weekend meet/surpass expectations?
L: The opening blew us away. Not only by the crowd we had out, but by the love and the outpouring of support from the fans. The building felt alive. We also were so touched by our friends who helped us out by volunteering. It was a night none of us will ever forget, I know it still feels surreal to me.
M: Can you tell us or hint at some of what The Underground has in store for the future?
L: Along with lots of great films, both second run and older fair, we have some events coming up that should be lots of fun. We also have some very special guests lined up, none that I can reveal yet, but we should be making announcements soon. One I can tell you about is we’re thinking of doing a seven deadly sins festival, showing films that play into each sin. We’re also looking into a Batman festival down the line, something that’s near and dear to my own heart.
For more information on The Toronto Underground Cinema check out their Facebook page. Also continue to watch for announcements about upcoming showings and coverage on events within this space. Also check out The Underground's website here.