Member of the Month: Toronto Outdoor Picture Show (TOPS), Toronto, ON

Member of the Month: Toronto Outdoor Picture Show (TOPS), Toronto, ON

Where else could you experience a 4-dimensional screening of Twister, complete with screen flying in the air? Toronto Outdoor Picture Show (TOPS) screens movies for free in public parks across Canada’s largest city—bringing audiences of up to 2,000+ per screening.

Showing a crowd-pleasing and vibrant mix of titles, each summer TOPS announces a new theme and draws thematic and stylistic connections within their film selection to bring new meaning and encourage thoughtful conversation.

Fresh off announcing their 2024 film program diving into the theme “On the Job,” artistic and executive director Emily Reid discusses the delight and community that comes with showing movies in the city summer nights.

Tell us about Toronto Outdoor Picture Show:

TOPS (for short) came out of my love of summer and cinema. When I moved to Toronto from the Ottawa area 15 years ago, I dreamed of seeing outdoor cinema in residential neighbourhoods.

At the time, there were outdoor cinema screenings organized in the downtown core by major arts organizations as sort of “side-bar programming” to their main attraction (sadly these have all come and gone), but none in residential areas of the city. And so, to cut a very long story short, she built it, and they sure did come!

What makes Toronto Outdoor Picture Show unique?

TOPS is the only charitable arts organization with a mission to present curated outdoor cinema programming for free to the public, I think, in Canada (at last I looked!).

What sort of films do you show?

Our film programming is deliberately very diverse in every way: we select from across the history of the medium (including silent classics), shorts and features, popular to experimental, films from around the world. It’s our annual theme that ties the films together — each summer we choose a theme that draws thematic and stylistic connections between films that bring new meaning to them and encourages thoughtful conversation.

For example, Cinematic Cities, Curtains Up, or Another World. This year’s On the Job programme looks at the concept of work through a myriad of lenses, and the communities we form with the people we spend our workdays (or nights) with.

What are Toronto Outdoor Picture Show’s greatest challenges?

Funding and capacity, these are intertwined challenges. We never have enough funding — we start almost from zero each year and have to fundraise over half a million dollars through project grants, sponsorships, and donations. It’s a gruelling hustle and it doesn’t get any easier these days.

And our small year-round team is so skilled and experienced, yet we’re all wearing so many hats and working at peak capacity. There is never enough capacity at small arts organizations (but there are very talented, passionate, resourceful people).

What are your favourite compliments that Toronto Outdoor Picture Show receives from your audience?

Without a doubt, the most touching feedback is when I hear that someone has found community at a TOPS event.

Whether it’s someone new to the city, or someone living through a personally challenging time, or facing economic barriers, or looking to connect with like-minded people who love their favourite film, we often hear that people “find” something special at TOPS. A connection or sense of belonging that they didn’t know they were looking for. This makes my heart swell because I think this is what I most wanted to create, when this all started.

What’s a memorable film screening or event you hosted?

I’ll give you two! Twister, 4D experiences both times we screened it!

The first time, in 2014, we screened it at Christie Pits Park, and that night people swore they could feel the subway rumble extra hard underfoot, with lightning in the distance.

And in 2020 we screened it to a reduced capacity audience in the first summer of the pandemic. A windstorm picked up right during the drive-in sequence and the screen ripped off its straps – I kid you not! Determined that the show must go on through the twister, our A/V team held the screen in place for the final 45 minutes. It was a perfect screening!

I’ve been chasing that high ever since, and Twister is coming back to the big TOPS screen at Fort York for one night only this June.

What are your most popular concession items?

Popcorn, of course! It doesn’t matter if we’re programming to a uniquely adult audience, or a broad mix of children and children-at-heart, on any given night popcorn is the most in-demand food item. I wish we had a way to keep up with the demand before showtime!

What projects are you considering for the future?

To be honest, this is not a great time for arts organizations. We’re a burnt-out sector, and employees deserve better pay and fewer challenges. So I crave sustainability and stability. I don’t dream of new things, I just want to be able to keep sharing our beautiful festival with the people of Toronto.

Tell us about yourself; how did you get your start in film exhibition?

As the final project of my Cinema Studies masters degree in 2010, I created a series for a local rep cinema, The Revue. Back then there were very few cinema series, this wasn’t common. But the Revue had several long-standing series by great local programmers, and this was a very special place to learn how to do that. So I created a books on film series called the Book Revue, and learned how to curate, to source rights, to market events to the public, to understand what had big screen appeal (and what doesn’t).

And then I created TOPS out of thin air the following year. Simultaneously I worked for several festivals in programming and marketing, including TIFF and Hot Docs for several years, and applied what I saw there to our smaller context (and disregarded things I didn’t want to replicate). I was self taught at TOPS, I learned how to run an arts organization by doing it, and every year we grew and I learned more. There’s always more for me to learn, and to look for self improvement as a leader and mentor in this sector, as a boss, and as a colleague.