Most wintery Saturday afternoons for the past 13 years, hundreds of local film buffs have found their way to the Shaw Festival main stage theatre to see a film they would not likely see elsewhere.
They arrive early, save their seats with a scarf or jacket, then venture back to the theatre lobby for a light lunch, all-the-while discussing what they’ve read about the film on Google or Rotten Tomatoes.
The film series is the brainchild of Steven Levy, a 20-year resident of Niagara-on-the-Lake. A native of Toronto, 80-year-old Levy imagined a winter film series that would bring a broad cross-section of interesting, engaging and sometimes provocative films—both independent and blockbuster—to the Shaw theatre.
That was 15 years ago.
He was convinced his toughest job would be getting permission to show the films, but his 20-plus year acting career in Europe, Toronto and Los Angeles, opened the right doors. Perhaps you’ve seen him in the original versions of Hawaii 5-0, Magnum: PI and Murder She Wrote, not to mention dozens of movies.
In fact, the timing was just right. Levy had produced a film that earned wide acclaim during the early years of the Toronto International Film Festival. The film was called The Silent Partner, with Elliot Gould and Christopher Plummer. It won 14 Genie awards.
That gave him the opportunity to ask TIFF if they would collaborate in presenting selected films in Niagara. They jumped on board right away.
The Shaw Festival didn’t jump quite as quickly. It took a couple of years for Shaw leadership to agree to the use of the main theatre. Levy had originally wanted to use the Royal George theatre, the oldest movie house in North America, but winter heating issues forced a rethink.
“I asked a couple of times”, says Levy. “And they finally said OK, if you raise $70,000 or so for the screen and projection equipment”.
Enter Carol Walker.
Levy remembers being told: “Find Carol Walker. She loves movies too and knows everyone”. The daughter of a movie projectionist and dedicated cinephile, Walker didn’t hesitate. While Levy trolled for suitable films, Walker organized and raised the money to make it all happen.
Even today, at every Saturday movie, Walker and her group of volunteers hold a raffle that sends an average of $450 a week, directly to the Shaw Festival.
Walker describes the series as a real partnership. “We used to complain the only movies you could see locally were Bruce Willis and Walt Disney”, says Walker. “Now Stephen and I just love a full house.”
“Without Carol, we would never have got this thing done”, added Levy.
Over the years, the number of films has varied from eight to 12 a season (there were also a few seasons of Friday evening documentaries). Levy, and his wife Ria, spend most of the year curating the upcoming series, stalking the movie scene, and searching for the best-made films of the year.
“They’re usually a little quirky and most often lesser-known films”, acknowledges Levy. “But we choose them, first and foremost, because they are well-made and have something to say”.
The Film Series was an incredible success from the first frame.
“In those early days, we filled every seat—almost 850. It has changed a bit now, people are getting their films in so many more places—Netflix and so on”, says Levy.
“But there is something really special about seeing a movie in such a wonderful hall. There is a certain reverence. It really is so much more satisfying than the distractions at home on the small screen”.
Tim Jennings, Shaw’s executive director, agrees. “There are still a large group of people that want to sit down, in a real theatre with popcorn and their friends, and watch movies.
“The series about breaks even”, he added. “But we don’t do it for the money. We like doing this kind of thing as a community project because we know the community enjoys it.”
Levy and Walker don’t do it for the money, either.
Tickets can be purchased at shawfest.com.