The Funnel down the tube by Wyndham Wise (Oct 1988)

Cinema Canada no. 156

The Funnel, Toronto’s alternative theatre space devoted exclusively to experimental and independent films, has apparently come to a confused and bitter end.

Judy Gouin, Film, Photography and Video Officer at the Ontario Arts Council said, in an interview with Cinema Canada, that “it is hard to know whether the Funnel is a functioning organization or not. We’ve been told to expect an application from them, but it’s overdue and I’ve heard nothing from them. I don’t know what condition they are in right now.”

Rob Berry, media spokesperson from the Ontario Ministry of Culture and Communication, said that “by June or July the operational end started to disintegrate so it (the Funnel’s application) was withdrawn because of administrative problems.”

The Funnel’s problems go back a number of years and were apparently exacerbated by the recent move to the much more expensive location on Soho Street, in the heart of Toronto’s fashionable Queen Street West area. Although filmmakers and past board members are reluctant to talk on the record about the events, it would appear that conflicts over membership and censorship were at the heart of the troubles.

In a meeting called prior to the move, it was decided to maintain the “closed shop” style of membership, whereby new members had to be invited to join by existing members. This irritated those who were pushing for a new style of membership. Significantly, the core membership had dropped to an all time low of twenty at the time of the move, from a previous high of over 100.

Censorship had always been a sensitive issue with the membership, but how best to tackle the issue because the focus of many internal disputes. At least one director in the past year had resigned over the issue of how best to fight the Ontario Film and Video Classification Board. Ironically, just as the Funnel was folding as an exhibition facility, the Classification Board dropped its restrictions on art gallery screenings.

The crunch came with the move to Soho Street. The old location on King Street was for some time felt to be outside the mainstream of artistic activity. Despite extensive renovations, the old building was really unsuitable for film screenings. In the spring of ’87 the Funnel left the King Streeet East building, which it had occupied since 1978.

However, it soon became apparent that the Board has seriously miscalculated the cost of the move. Renovations were taking longer than planned and someone had failed to take into account the taxes the Funnel would have to pay. The Funnel was now stuck with a lease that was costing them in the neighbourhood of $60,000 a year.

According to Berry at the Ministry of Culture and Communications, “The Funnel had been approved for a CFIP application they had made (this is money set aside by the Ministry for various art groups to either build or renovate) but the application was never processed because other matching funding did not come through.” Instead, according to past members, money was spent from existing Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council grants. This caused a serious problem with cash flow and there was little left for salaries and programming. In turn, there was a further erosion of membership.

At the time of its official opening in February of this year the Funnel was incomplete and, despite the expressed optimism, the theatre never opened. The landlord kept the doors closed at night, and in the resulting confusion, he finally refused the space to be used as a screening facility.

The equipment was moved into storage and the remaining board members announced to the community that the Funnel could no longer function as an exhibition entity. It would instead become a productive co-operative. As one disgruntled filmmaker told Cinema Canada, “it has become very difficult for any filmmaker to access equipment. The rumour has it that they’re gone ‘underground.’”

Technically the Funnel is still responsible for the rent at Soho Street until another tenant can be found, and within the arts community there are still a lot of unanswered questions. The equipment in storage represents some of the best Super9 equipment in the country. The current director, Gary McLaren, brother of the original Funnel founder, Ross McLaren, could not be reached by phone for comment. As far as Judy Gouin of the OAC is concerned “the Funnel is not a closed book. It is an ongoing story.”