The Argument: Hot Docs’ takeover of the Bloor Cinema proves the once humble doc is the new crowd-pleaser

The Argument: Hot Docs’ takeover of the Bloor Cinema proves the once humble doc is the new crowd-pleaser

Like an old ham of an actor, the Bloor Cinema has veered in and out of respectability in its hundred-odd years of existence. During World War I, it was the Madison Picture Palace, and during World War II it was demolished and completely rebuilt. Throughout the skeezy ’70s it was the Eden, and it showed only soft-core porn (promotional tag line: “Are you Adam enough to come?”). Over the past few decades, the Bloor has operated as a repertory cinema, offering second-run Hollywood fare and the occasional classic, hosting mini film festivals and packing people in for midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show while growing ever more dilapidated. By the time it finally closed its doors last summer, the state of the theatre had become almost as unsettling as the sight of Tim Curry in drag.

This spring, the Bloor got transformed into the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, having been bought by the Toronto-based television and film production company Blue Ice Group, which will operate the theatre in partnership with the long-running Hot Docs festival. While the Bloor will still offer the odd screening of Blade Runner and The Big Lebowski, it will otherwise focus exclusively on documentaries.

In rebranding the cinema, Hot Docs and Blue Ice didn’t just scrape the old gum off the bottom of the seats: they hired Toronto’s Hariri Pontarini Architects to completely revitalize the place, spending more than $3 million in the process. The prestigious firm is responsible for the AGO’s Weston Family Learning Centre, York University’s Schulich School of Business and the Adidas flagship store at Yonge and Dundas, and is tasked with raising One Bloor East from the dead after the Bazis International debacle. Siamak Hariri, the firm’s co-founder, calls the Bloor “a beautiful lady” and says their aim was not to do a radical ROM Crystal–style makeover but to restore the theatre to its early-20th-century glory. “We’re not doing a kind of ‘Look Ma, no hands’ ” with the Bloor, Hariri says. Instead, they have revived the interior’s 1940s-era colour schemes and fabric patterns while adding some modern touches like a much bigger screen, a new state-of-the-art sound system and a giant glass wall dividing the theatre from an expanded lobby.

Having its own dedicated venue is a concrete symbol of Hot Docs’ success. (TIFF only got its own venue two years ago.) When the festival began back in 1993, it was an industry-only affair, with the films screened on video monitors in hotel conference rooms for fellow filmmakers and distributors. Public screenings were rare, and the festival’s profile was virtually nonexistent. It was so far off the public’s radar that Chris McDonald, Hot Docs’ executive director and the man who spearheaded the festival’s mainstreamification, had attended only one festival screening before he was hired in 1998. (The film was Wild Man Blues, about Woody Allen.)

When McDonald first began to transform Hot Docs into a public festival as well as an international one, documentaries suffered from an image problem: they were perceived as earnest party poopers. “We really had to disabuse people of the notion that documentaries were like cod liver oil—they taste bad but are good for you,” says McDonald. To counter the bad rap, the festival made marketing as breezy and frivolous as possible. Many of the early public screenings were held in College Street bars and cafés, the sounds of the films drowned out by chatter and the noise of cappuccino machines.

In the past decade, attendance has grown to more than 150,000, making it the biggest documentary festival in North America and more than twice the size of Sundance. It has hosted the biggest names working in the genre—people like Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, D. A. Pennebaker (the director of the seminal Bob Dylan doc Don’t Look Back) and Morgan Spurlock (who premiered The Greatest Movie Ever Sold at last year’s Hot Docs). The festival spawned Doc Soup, a bite-sized monthly screening series; sister events soon popped up in Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. This year, the festival takes over 16 Toronto screens for nearly two weeks. Plans are being made to simulcast select screenings and filmmaker Q&As at Cineplex theatres across the country.

The Bloor is blessed with good timing. We’re in the middle of a documentary boom that has been building for more than a decade; nearly all of the highest-grossing docs of all time have been released since 2002 (the year Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine came out). Earnest, cod liver oil docs still exist, but they are surrounded by non-fiction films every bit as fluffy, sexy or thrilling as whatever Ryan Gosling happens to be starring in this week.

It’s even a little strange to still talk about documentaries as a single genre. How definitive can a category be when it includes Inside Job (about the 2008 financial crash), Babies (about a year in the life of four infants) and —technically, at least—Jackass 3D? Banksy’s brilliantly funny, Oscar-nominated prank­umentary Exit Through the Gift Shop rests on a premise—an eccentric French fan of street art transforms himself into the scene’s biggest star overnight—that is almost certainly fictional, stretching the definition of the documentary beyond the breaking point. Herzog, who readily admits to fabricating details in his non-fiction films, including the entire albino crocodile–filled epilogue of his recent Cave of Forgotten Dreams, argues that what counts with a documentary is not strict adherence to the facts, but whether or not it seeks out “the ecstasy of truth”—which is exactly the kind of thing Herzog would say.

At a time when documentary films are more compulsively watchable than ever, having a theatre dedicated to showing them year-round sounds less like financial suicide and more like a stroke of genius. And if it means we can still see Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter doing the Time Warp every once in a while,
even better.

Hot Docs Festival
Various venues
April 26 to May 6