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Cineplex theatres target horror and genre fans with edgy film series

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TORONTO - Options are limited for art-house horror fan Connor Marsden.

The off-beat fare he prefers is not the kind of material that generally screens at the local multiplex, forcing him to hunt down edgy titles at film festivals, rep cinemas and DVD stores.

And yet, this week he found himself in the most unlikely of places to get his horror fix — at the towering Cineplex theatre in downtown Toronto where small movies are getting a big push by the mammoth film chain.

Surrounded by like-minded genre junkies, the 23-year-old settled into one of the theatre's stadium seats to check out the psychedelic trip "John Dies At the End," directed by Don Coscarelli.

"Usually this type of stuff doesn't play at Cineplex — it's like you get the big studio horror movies but that's about it," Marsden said of the chain's bid to corner an alternative audience.

"I think this is really cool."

Cineplex is betting that other devoted cult-film devotees feel that way, too.

Its new film series Sinister Cinema promises to bring cutting-edge indies to 25 theatres from British Columbia to Quebec, and with them a celebratory film-festival vibe targeting the horror genre's young and passionate following.

"The success of these films at film festivals is proof to us that there's definitely a market out there for them," says Mike Langdon, director of communications for Cineplex Entertainment.

"They're an opportunity for us to bring a different type of moviegoer into the theatre."

In Toronto, the screening of "John Dies At the End" included a greeting from Coscarelli, trailers for similarly bloody features headed to Cineplex, a kitschy short film before the main feature (the demented spoof "Bio-Cop") and then a Q&A with the director to cap things off.

The monthly program's first four films come from the Toronto-based distribution company Raven Banner Entertainment, which specializes in genre fare. Managing partner Andrew Hunt praises Cineplex for bringing lesser-known titles to a broader audience, even if it's only for one night a month.

Raven Banner typically works with small independent movie houses that specialize in niche programming but there are fewer and fewer of them around, he says.

"There are some great rep theatres in Canada but there's a lot less of them than there was five years ago and 10 years ago," says Hunt, adding that audience interest is nevertheless still there.

"(Sinister Cinema) is going to be getting out obviously the hardcore fans of genre films, and also the people who would probably love to go to a great film festival like TIFF Midnight Madness or Fantasia in Montreal but maybe they live in a city where they can't get there."

Coscarelli says it's a great boost for filmmakers like him who generally have to hustle for even the smallest distribution deals.

"It's a really daring move on their part to try to open up the market," says Coscarelli, who earned a dedicated following for helming genre classics "Phantasm," "The Beastmaster" and "Bubba Ho-Tep."

"It's a courageous move on the part of Cineplex because a lot of exhibitors are accused of being stodgy and not up-to-the-times and they're stepping up there and taking a risk."

He notes the industry is dominated by studio films, filling chain cinemas with a relatively homogenous slate of big-budget tent-poles.

"There's not the diversity that there was when I was younger, certainly in terms of movies that are available to us."

Langdon says Sinister Cinema is part of a swath of diverse programming known as its Front Row Centre Events series, which puts "non-Hollywood programming" including 3D sporting events, live opera, dance and music concerts on the big screen.

Themed programs include Cineplex's Classic Film Series, which offers old faves including "African Queen," "Singin' in the Rain," and "Sunset Boulevard," for $6; and Family Favourites, which offers kid-friendly flicks like "Free Willy," "Curious George" and "Big" for $2.50.

Each Monday there's a crowd favourite, such as "Aliens," "Taxi Driver" or "Full Metal Jacket."

For those theatres that specialize in second-run and avant-garde fare, the Cineplex experiment is definitely not welcome.

"It's the one thing we do well and the chains are now trying to steal that one thing from us," says Lee Demarbre, programmer at Ottawa's single-screen Mayfair Theatre.

Nevertheless, he argues that chains will never be able to match the ability of independents to connect with audiences.

He bemoans the quality of digital projections at the big chains, as opposed to the dying 35-millimetre format: "Watching a digital copy of a movie is quite literally like going on Google and looking at the Mona Lisa."

And he suspects that audiences wouldn't have as much fun at a big-box venue.

"We're showing 'John Dies at the End' at the end of the week and I'm sure we'll get a better crowd than they will.... We've got a punk rock crowd," he says.

"These cinemas are designed to be box-seaters all crammed together in one building and it totally defeats the idea of the way to watch and listen to a movie. Slope floors in a cinema were built for a reason. Stadium seating in a cinema completely defeats the way you listen to and look at a movie. Most times, you're sitting behind the rear speakers. That's disgusting."

The "hardcore genre fans" might pause before heading to Cineplex to catch a gorefest, agrees Dave Alexander, editor and chief of Rue Morgue magazine.

"They feel sort of a sense of ownership as if the big guys are coming in and taking this kind of cool thing that only they know about away from them," says Alexander, whose horror-themed publication runs a national horror expo, a film production arm and film series.

But overall, he says the average movie fan doesn't really care where they see the movie — just as long as they get the chance to see it.

"Everything is so in flux that we need to try different methods, whether it's a one-night screening at a multiplex or a week-long run at a rep cinema," he says.

"In general, I think the divisions between the more mainstream film culture and the cult film culture have really kind of collapsed. If you look at all the classic kind of cult films that are being remade for mainstream audiences such as 'Evil Dead' for example, you could just see that those divisions are kind of becoming more and more irrelevant."

Langdon says the Front Row Events series has already brought back film fans who abandoned theatrical releases for various reasons.

"You'll get someone coming in to see a classic film series presentation who hasn't been to the movies in years and they'll say, 'Hey, what you guys have going on here is really neat,'" he says.

"We have seen some guests ... impressed by how cinema has changed over the years and how theatres have changed over the years with digital projection and improvements in audio, surround sound and all those things."

And if rep theatres are feeling left out, Raven Banner suggests the Cineplex experiment can actually help them promote their classic marquee by building audience nostalgia in general.

Documentary filmmaker Morgan White is skeptical of that claim, noting that the big chains have been squeezing rep theatres out business for decades.

"They have a marketing ability that no independent theatre has," notes White, whose documentary "The Rep" is all about dying rep theatres and is looking for an independent theatre to give it a home.

"It's taking business, or the business model, from the repertory cinemas away from them and putting it into Cineplex, or into the corporate theatres. They're simply stealing the idea of a repertory cinema and they're also stealing some of the programming. Because if you look at the stuff that Cineplex is playing it's the tried-and-true repertory content that all of the other cinemas make money off of — like '80s movies and things like 'The Godfather.'"

Coscarelli admits its tough for rep cinemas but says there's no stopping change in the industry. For him, scoring a theatrical release offers a "badge of honour" and the greater likelihood of press attention and further sales.

"If there's an appearance of legitimacy that it is an actual movie that shows in theatres then you have the ability to exhibit it on all your other streams like DVD or video-on-demand or iTunes," he says.

Depending on where you live, there are a growing number of ways to catch beloved favourites with fellow enthusiasts.

IMAX recently screened a special 3D version of the '80s classic "Top Gun" in February. And in Toronto, the company 360 Screenings offers a hybrid of live theatre and cinema that features a performance drawn from a classic film, followed by a screening of that film in a heritage or unique city building.

White says such screenings are a welcome alternative to the weekly blockbuster.

"The motto of the film industry seems to be: re-make and re-purpose everything," he says. "I could care less about a re-make of a classic film that I love, I'd much rather watch that classic film."

Marsden says the Sinister Cinema series allowed him to catch "John Dies At the End" after he missed it at last September's Toronto International Film Festival, when it screened as part of the Midnight Madness program.

"I was so upset that night. I was like, 'Man, I'm never going to see it, I will never see it on a big screen.' And now I got to and I'm happy," he says, hoping Sinister Cinema expands to more showings.

"It'd be nice if it was a weekly thing even or every couple of weeks. That'd be awesome."

Upcoming Sinister Cinema films include "The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh" on May 9, "American Mary" on May 30 and "No One Lives" on June 19.

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