Thursday, June 28, 2007

Brunswick Theatre Interview, Part I - 'We won't shy away from screening a controversial documentary'

The first time I saw the poster adevertising a film on 'Vatican Sex Crimes', I thought I was in for a sleezy sexploitation flick centred on the busy fingers of a parish priest. Examining the fine print, I found the poster actually advertised the screening at the Brunswick Theatre of a film on the recent sex scandals that have plagued the Catholic church. I don't know whether the owners of the Brunswick intented to foster in the public this sort of initial misreading of their ad, but I had to admit, it was effective - I now wanted to find out more about this local cinema that so brazenly advertised the moral short comings of the Catholic clergy.

A bit of digging on the internet (read: Googling 'Brunswick Theatre Toronto') soon turned up the contact info for the programmer of the Brunswick, a Mr. Scott Gilbert, and I requested a brief interview. Arriving early for our meeting, I had the chance to peruse the shelves of videos and books the theatre stocks for sale. The videos ranged from documentaries on 9/11 and the Iraq war to global warming and the connection between mardi gras beads and Chinese factory labour, while the books stocked featured the usual suspects: Chomsky, Nader, Hersh. Next to the popcorn machine was a table littered with pamphlets and books on Cuba and the Cuban revolution, most of them in Spanish. This seemed to be a favourite theme of the theatre, as when I later wandered into the screening room I saw displayed prominently on one of the walls a banner calling for the freeing of the 'Cuban Five'. The theatre was a hodgepodge of political views and sympathies and, in a way, I admired the earnestness of it all. While I didn't completely share the theatre owner's obvious enthusiasm for progressive politics, it was certainly preferable to the affected apathy that passes for trenchant social insight among Toronto's hipster crowds.

Meeting Scott outside the theatre (which is on Brunswick Ave., just off Bloor and next to Futures Bakery), I was able to put to him some questions regarding the motivation behind launching the Brunswick, the theatre's politics, and it's connection to Toronto's activist community. (Once again, the interview has been divided into smaller parts to make for easier reading.)

Kino-Eye: Why and how did you come to found the Brunswick?

Scott Gilbert: We decided to start this more as a vehicle for social change than as a commercial venture. It's kind of an extension of our earlier work - we've now been open here for four months, but for a year before that we were renting the Bloor Cinema and doing documentaries there, anywhere from two to five (documentaries) a month, and before that for three years in Guelph, as students on the student union, we were involved in various activities that included bringing in speakers and holding talks. So we've got a lot of experience over the last several years and we're now trying to give it a shot and make it a business.

KE: Now, I'm going to jump ahead in my list of questions, as you've already touched on something I had planned on bringing up later. You seem to be screening quite a lot of politically-themed documentaries and have seemed to have carved out a niche market for yourself screening films that other theatres are uninterested in. What motivated you to screen these films and why do you believe these films are of importance?

SG: Well that's just it. In light of the fact that so many other theatres in the city closing down, we knew we had to have an edge on the market, and we're definitely not going to make it anywhere if we're going to be showing just the big mainstream films. Most of the other theatres around the city do the mainstream fictional films, the comedies and stuff like that, and when they do bring on documentaries, it's usually only the big ones like 'The Corporation' or something by Michael Moore. But there are literally thousands upon thousands of other documentaries out there that none of the big cinemas screen. Most of the time you can't get these films from Blockbuster or other local video stores, and a lot of the time they're not available for download off the internet, and if they are, they are difficult to find.

That's kind of our edge on the market - we've turned this space not only into a screening room but a video rental store for a lot of these films. We're starting to archive them and make them available for people, either for rental or to see on the big screen. The additional edge we have on the market is that we hold a discussion after each film. We won't show documentaries of some guy in his ski trip - we'll show documentaries that have a political, social, or environmental mandate to it.

KE: So your response to someone who would be disinclined to go to one of your screenings because they believe they can simply rent the film at their local video store would be that these films just aren't widely available for rent.

SG: Exactly. I would say that probably about 16-20% of our titles you can get at Queen or Suspect Video, but the vast majority are just not available at either of those locations. I really don't understand why - there is a market for them and people certainly want to see them. But I think most video stores simply aren't aware of these films because most documentary film makers and distributors don;t have the budgets to allow for mass marketing campaigns in multiple cities. Most of these films are made for the university and high school market, so what we do is contact different school boards and different university libraries and go through their collections and that's how we learn about a lot of these titles.

KE: You just mentioned that a lot of these films are being produced for the university market. Do you find that your principle audience is students, or are you reaching a much wider audience?

SG: We are trying to reach a lot of university students but are just not getting the kind of numbers we were expecting from that crowd. We find that most of our audience is actually in the range of 35 and older, which is actually surprising. It could be that most students don't have a lot of time or money, so we're trying to make some changes to encourage them to come out more, but by and large most of the people who do come are middle aged.

KE: You have started a pretty aggressive marketing campaign, postering many major streets with ads for these films. Is this campaign recent and, if so, have you noticed an increase in turnout due to the postering campaign?

SG: We use postering primarily because it is what we can afford. We go around on a moped and do major intersections. On key strips, like along Bloor from Bathurst to Yonge, we'll do every pole, but most of the time we'll just bounce from intersection to intersection, trying to cover the widest range possible. We've found it to be very effective in getting random people that we otherwise may not reach. But it is also limited because there are simply so many posters out there that many people do not see them. City workers tear them down, as do people that disagree with the films. So there are pros and cons to postering - sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

KE: You say that there are people who tear down your posters because, politically, they find something objectionable in the films you are screening. How can you distinguish between those individuals and the city workers who are paid to tear down every poster they come across?

SG: Oh, they tell us. We'll see them do it and they'll yell at us from across the street as we are putting up other posters. Our web designer got a phone call asking him not to make a website for us. The biggest opposition has been surrounding around the screening of 'The God Delusion' by Richard Dawkins. Our position is that we won't shy away from screening a controversial documentary and encourage people to come out to express their views. We respect all view points in our audience and we encourage people to come out and criticize the films. We'll never turn away anyone based on their view point and in fact we often offer critics free tickets to our screenings so that we can get them in there and diversify the view points in the room and facilitate a free and open discussion on the topic.

KE: Are these post-film discussions meant to make the film-going experience more active and less passive?

SG: Exactly. We always try to block off at least 45 minutes after each screening after each film. The idea is that we really want to get a dialogue going on these films. A lot of these films are really powerful and they take a lot of you and it is important to get a discussion going on them because a lot of the time people feel that they do need time to bounce ideas off other people in the audience and think about constructive ways of dealing with the issues raised in the film. If you see any of these films at another theatre, you just see the movie and go home - you're not provided with this opportunity for social discourse.


Anonymous said...

another good interview kino-eye.

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