Just more than a year ago, Nadia Sandhu, Jonathan Hlibka and Euan Mowat took a chance on a struggling single-screen theatre in the heart of Leslieville.
Twelve months later, the trio’s “labour of love” – Projection Booth East at 1035 Gerrard St. E. at Jones Avenue – is a thriving movie house known across the GTA for its art, schlock, indie and foreign films.
“We never imagined we’d get into running a theatre. It’s a crazy scheme that actually worked out. It’s our very own film adventure,” said Sandhu, who alongside Hlibka, co-owns Studio Film Group, a Leslieville-based film distribution, marketing and production company.
The duo handles the day-to-day operations of Projection Booth East, while Mowat, a local entrepreneur who owns the neighbouring Grinder Coffee, takes care of food concessions and any logistic details for the 280-seat cinema.
“We’re all passionate about it and we’re having a hell of a great time. It’s really rewarding. We hope we’ll see some of the films we’ve screened here win Academy Awards,” said Sandhu, during a recent interview inside the lobby of the 101-year-old repertory theatre.
She said the idea of opening their own theatre was a bit of a pipe dream at first as she and Hlibka were facing a lot of challenges finding locations to screen the films they were trying to promote for their clients.
“I’d been eyeing the space for some time. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we walked to the end of the street to see a movie?’” laughed Sandhu, admitting they both had no idea how much work was required to run a theatre.
“It’s been a lot of fun. That’s why we do it. It’s been a great ride. You just have to expect the unexpected and roll with it sometimes.”
Aside from a lot of hard work, Sandhu said it was also a case of being at the right place at the right time as well as having a little bit of good luck along the way, which included connecting with charismatic local entrepreneur, Mowat, who is passionate about improving the local retail strip.
“I guess the timing was right. The (former) Gerrard Cinema wasn’t doing so well. Everything just fell into place,” she said, adding the key to success at Projection Booth East has been having an open mind when it comes to programming and booking the space.
“Anything is possible. We’re willing to give things a try. We can try out whatever we want to reach our market,” she said.
In the past year, the cinema has held Bollywood Basement nights on Sundays, playing retro south Asian films found in the theatre’s basement.
They’ve programmed Monsters & Martians sci-fi film nights, a concept so well-received it’s now being rolled out as a four-day film festival, the first of its kind in Canada, this November at Projection Booth East.
They’ve screened retro cartoons for kids Saturday mornings, Super Punch kung-fu nites on Saturday evenings and monthly horror film “Fright Nights,” and a Monty Python-a-thon, to name just a few.
“We’ve done some crazy stuff. We’re learning along the way and listening to feedback,” said Sandhu, noting it’s all about finding out what works and what doesn’t for the theatre and its patrons.
“We’re open to people coming and pitching us their ideas and we’ll see if we can make it work. So far there hasn’t been a night we couldn’t do. You name it. The sky’s the limit.”
Scores of people and groups have also rented the space for all kinds of events from comedy nights to private film screenings to live music events and shadow cast presentations. There’s even been a marriage proposal.
This spring, some interesting clues about the century-old theatre’s past came to light with the discovery in May of two “secret” storage rooms on either side of the movie screen.
“I was basically looking behind the screen and a saw mezzanine so I climbed up and found two large rooms,” said Gareth McGorman, a part-time staff member at Projection Booth East.
Inside those dusty spaces, he found a veritable treasure trove of film paraphernalia from bygone eras including pieces of sets, a Union Jack flag, clothing, posters from silent film serials, several piano rolls for silent films (the oldest one dates back to 1915), and even an edition of the Toronto Telegraph newspaper from 1931.
McGorman also located a number of large movie posters including one of the circa 1937 film Seventh Heaven starring James Stewart as well as posters for Meet Me on Broadway (1946), The Song You Gave Me (1933) and Life with Blondie, a 1954 film based on the Archie newspaper comics.
“Some of the artifacts we found are in poor shape but some are salvageable,” said McGorman, who has a background in archiving.
“It was pretty exciting to find all this stuff. The first thing I did was document it all.”
Sandhu said aside from being able to trace the various names of the former Gerrard Cinema including The Athenian, The Wellington, The Bonita and The Sri Lakshmi, they haven’t been able to uncover much else relating to its past.
“In other movie theatres, you can trace their history but this one sort of falls off the grid,” she said, inviting anyone with stories, anecdotes or historical information to get in touch.
Sandhu said the hope down the line is to set up a display about the theatre’s history in the lobby area.
In the coming months, the plan is to renovate the inside of the main theatre space and expand the front stage area so it’s more convenient for music and theatre bookings. Sandhu also said they’d also like to clean up and use those two storage areas as green rooms.
Projection Booth East has also recently started up “Projection Booth To Go,” a new loyalty card that entitles members to an indie movie rental membership, one free movie ticket and one free rental, a dollar off every film and event night and other discounts and offers from local restaurants and merchants.
On another note, Sandhu and Hlibka have also recently inked a deal with the Metro Theatre on Bloor Street West at Christie Street to run that two-screen venue in the same “art-schlock-indie-foreign” film format as Projection Booth East.
Called Projection Booth Metro, the new sister space is currently being upgraded and the plan is to start screening films there in the evenings and on weekends by the end of the month.
An official grand opening party for the new west-end theatre is in the works for the end of September.
For more information or to view a schedule of screening times, visit www.projectionbooth.ca