Drake Conrad adjusts the focus of the film being projected onto a giant silver screen as the popcorn munching audience looks on. The film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, flickers away.
This could be taking place in any Toronto cinema, but the scene is Conrad’s rooftop, near Liberty Village. Before the feature, cartoons and classic film trailers are shown, featuring advertisements with the ubiquitous “let’s all go to the lobby” jingle.
The relaxing vibe is mixed with cool night-time air, planes flying overhead and the odd distraction from neighbours.
This summer, as many urbanites opt for bicycles instead of automobiles, rooftops have become walk-up drive-ins for city dwellers. Screenings both public and private have also taken place in laneways, art galleries, public squares, even the platforms on the TTC.
“Seeing film in unconventional, non-theatrical spaces is part of the film tradition,” says Toronto International Film Festival projectionist Kathryn MacKay.
“Throughout film history, there have been screenings in church basements, classrooms, barns and fields,” says MacKay, who also co-programs the avant-garde film series Early Monthly Segments. “Exhibitors would travel around with films, projectors and a screen to places too small to have a cinema.”
In Toronto, the first public screening of the Lumiere Cinematographe, an early film projector created by the Lumiere Bros., was held at the 1896 Exhibition. Those who missed it could see it again on September 23, at 96 Yonge St., then an empty store-front north of King St., now the site of an office tower.
Eaton’s shoppers were admitted free, much to the dismay of the neighbouring Bijou Vaudeville, showing the competing Edison Vitascope.
Until theatoriums became commonplace in 1906, the people of Toronto would get their moving image kicks by visiting temporary screening houses set up by fly-by-night showmen projecting newsreels, travelogues, auto races and fight films. Rows of seats were planks of wood, and peanut vendors would stroll the aisles in between reel changes.
Robert Gutteridge’s book Magic Moments alleges that in 1909, pirated fight films were shown in a building on the south-west corner of King and Richmond Sts.
“They were renegades,” says Stacey Case, proprietor of the Trash Palace, whose shameless self-promotion, although subdued, is not unlike the bravado displayed by many early showmen. Case operates the three-year old micro-cinema out of his screen-printing business near King and Niagara Sts.
“The showmen were in it for the money, but in those days it was also about showing something new and exciting.” Case doesn’t run the Trash Palace for profit, but rather for the fun of seeing film with others. Sometimes he is watching a film for the first time, unsure how the audience will react. “It’s trial and error,” he says, “but it’s a collaborative experience.”
For the Toronto film series Early Monthly Segments, which is sometimes held on the mezzanine of the historic Gladstone Hotel, TIFF’s Kathryn MacKay, often with the filmmakers in attendance, says the venue was selected to keep screenings as casual and intimate as possible.
“An inattentive or hostile audience can ruin the most perfectly projected films, whereas a focused and interested one can make up for the lack of absolute darkness and silence,” says MacKay. During a recent screening of experimental filmmaker Ellie Epp’s work, “we were completely sold out, standing room only. It was hot, yet there was no squirming or fidgeting,” she says. “Everyone was completely focused on the work.”
The public’s desire for alternative cinema events brings back the movie-going days of the early 20th century, says Ross Melnick, author of the book Cinema Treasures. “They went to the Loew’s Uptown for the experience. The film was secondary.”
Melnick, who ten years ago launched cinematreasures.org, a worldwide database of movie theatres, says that besides a projector, seats and a screen, what’s most important is the “psychic idea” of movie-going.
“Beyond the walls of the theatre or the edges of the rooftop, it’s about friends and strangers congregating for a curatorial purpose. It creates taste culture, community.”
It’s also inspiring, says Case. “Multiplexes are great, but nobody goes there and leaves with the desire to open their own movie theatre. But you go to a screening in a smaller venue or you visit a rooftop, and you think — hey, now I can do this.”
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star’s Insight section on September 11, 2010.