Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Toronto’s city-owned theatres struggling to make ends meet

Taxpayers are being asked to dig deeper to subsidize Toronto’s three city-owned theatres because business is down, council’s budget committee was told Tuesday.

In total, the three theatres are looking to taxpayers to write a cheque for $4.3 million to cover them for 2013.

One of the theatres, the Sony Centre, is hosting corporate events and weddings to make ends meet. Still, it’s seeking a 35.8-per-cent increase in its subsidy, to $1.2 million in 2013.

The Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York, which suffered a loss when theatre producer Dancap Productions departed the Main Stage, wants a 96.5-per-cent subsidy increase, bringing it to $1.6 million.

And the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, whose tenant Canadian Stage Co. has suffered declining audiences, is requesting a 16.4-per-cent subsidy hike to $1.4 million.

The situation had Councillor James Pasternak, a budget committee member, asking if live theatre has a future in Toronto.

“I am optimistic but I think it’s going to be another five to six years before it turns around,” said Dan Brambilla, CEO of the Sony Centre, which several years ago lost the Canadian Opera Company and National Ballet of Canada to the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

The Sony Centre opened its doors 52 years ago. The O’Keefe Centre, as it was then called, welcomed its first patrons with a performance of Camelot featuring Julie Andrews, Richard Burton and Robert Goulet.

In 1996, the venue was renamed the Hummingbird Centre. And in 2007, as part of a 10-year, $20-million partnership with Sony Canada, it took the entertainment giant’s name.

The St. Lawrence Centre was built in 1967, one of many projects tied to the Canadian Centennial. The Toronto Centre for the Arts opened in 1993.

The city had issued a formal call for interested buyers but a report concluded that the Sony Centre was the only one likely to sell. Council was advised to defer the recommendation to sell Sony Centre until early 2013.

Pasternak also asked about renting the space for non-theatrical purposes to garner revenue and was told Sony already rents out for corporate meetings and social functions.

“Corporate events are becoming a major part of our business,” Brambilla said. “We even do weddings and bar mitzvahs now, anything that we can do to make the facility useful and be profitable and bring in money.”

The Sony Centre has put a special focus on snagging part of the business from visiting conventions, conferences and trade shows, he added.

“We have a staff that sells into that market and we work with Tourism Toronto to find appropriate events coming in that we can be a host venue for. We aggressively market in that area.”

Councillor Doug Ford, the budget committee’s vice-chair, grilled the theatre representatives on the number of managers to staff.

Ford also wanted to know how many managers in the three theatres earn more than $100,000, and was told the Sony Centre and Toronto Centre each have three and the St. Lawrence Centre has one.

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