One of the downsides of video on demand is the threat its popularity may pose to the last remaining independent cinemas in North America and beyond.
Netflix may well have hammered the final nail in the coffin of the neighborhood video store. Now VOD could eventually claim an even greater casualty from a filmgoer's perspective, eating into the hard-fought revenues of smaller theaters — the Trylon microcinema in south Minneapolis, for example — that already have enough competition for the public's eyeballs.
Therefore it's highly ironic that "The Rep," about a trio of twenty-something Canadian film geeks struggling to keep their newly launched indie cinema from going dark, has premiered this month not in art-house theaters, but on VOD — courtesy of an up-and-coming online distributor known as FilmBuff, yet. (The movie is available for streaming or download via Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.)
Despite this documentary's odd and somewhat problematic absence from public exhibition, it's hard to imagine hardcore cinephiles getting up in arms over "The Rep," whose unimpeachably righteous message is spelled out at the end: "If you like a theater in your town, any theater, support it."
The fickleness of public attention is part of what gives the film its mild measure of suspense. Can the Toronto Underground Cinema keep on reeling amid audience sizes of a half-dozen or less? Low attendance aside, the Underground — a 600-seater in the basement of a downtown condo building — would seem to have other strikes against it as well, not least the naiveté of Charlie, Nigel and Alex, the theater's variously likable co-founders.
Bickering buddies with no shortage of passion, the three young adventurers appear to launch their pride and joy with no nest egg, no benefactor, no business plan, no desire or ability to acquire nonprofit status and no coherent programming strategy that could secure the respect and devotion of discerning cinéastes in one of the world's great movie towns.
Tellingly, the Underground celebrates its one-year anniversary with a free double-bill of, ahem, "Jurassic Park" and "Clue."
Perhaps "The Rep" is less a tribute to indie tenacity than a semi-comic cautionary tale for exhibitors and the audience. Both groups need to work smartly to preserve what remains of the cinematic ecosystem. Indie theaters must continue to strike a healthy programming balance between new and old, populist and rarefied. And to the movie lover in the digital age: One cannot live on private screenings alone.
Also notable on VOD
Toward the healthy coexistence of VOD and the good ol' art house, this seems a fine time to mention that to enhance one's appreciation of the excellent new documentary "Informant" (now playing on the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul's screen at St. Anthony Main in Minneapolis as well as VOD), there's "Better This World" (available with a subscription to Netflix).
Like "Informant," "Better This World" deals with the bizarre transformation of one Brandon Darby from a radical left-wing activist to the FBI snitch responsible for the arrest and indictment of two young protesters at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
Rob Nelson is a National Society of Film Critics member whose reviews appear regularly in the trade magazine Variety.