Back to the Future: a personal view of the state of cinema-going in Northern Ireland

Conor Johnston writes for us on the state of the cinema industry in Northern Ireland

I’ve used ‘state’ here, as the word reminds me of the State Cinema in Ballymena of my schooldays: a long queue for two large screens, thick smoke and the searching light of the owner’s torch on the lookout for feet-up or a hand about to launch a Cadburys Eclair at a classmate across the room.

Fast-forward to 2015 and my last visit to a big multi-screen cinema in Belfast: a crammed, sticky-hot shoebox in a seat far too close to the screen. A similar story in many of our various modern cinemas – Omniplex being among the exceptions – where movies are joylessly thrown onto the wall of a box-like room with no apparent care for how the film looks, sounds or – most of all – how the experience feels for the filmgoer.

I’d say it is no coincidence, then, that something very, very interesting is happening in Northern Ireland: the growth of community cinema clubs and screenings from Derry to Ballymena, Newry to Newcastle, Dungannon and Enniskillen.

I’ve been to some of these screenings in Ballymena, where a group of film fans have enjoyed hand-picked movies together in the Braid Theatre and even, in an off-shoot brand of event, enjoyed themed food, snacks and movies in Galgorm Manor Hotel thanks to Braid Film Theatre stalwart and broadcaster Tim Burden and his Braid Film Theatre team.

That’s not to mention the work of the likes of Belfast Film Festival, who have organised screenings in a wide range of locations such as Stormont, BBC Blackstaff Studios and recently on Divis Mountain.

This still leaves out quite a few groups who are working hard to bring us movies shown with passion and respect for the viewer. Honourable mentions go to Newcastle Community Cinema and their wonderful late 20th century Annesley Hall premises, Portrush Film Theatre for their use of the original Playhouse venue and Dungannon Film Club for their busy screenings and slick website.

I’m told that these volunteer-led groups are given value support and expertise in the background by a network of organisations such as British Film Institute-funded Cinema for All and FilmHub, and by Filmgoer and Scalarama (who also hold events and screenings).

Of course, Queens Film Theatre – a national treasure – has long provided the backbone of independent, quality cinema in Northern Ireland and it is a joy to see it constantly busy.

There is one priceless, remaining connection, however, to the cinema of our schooldays: the wonderful Strand Cinema in East Belfast.

Step inside the striking Art Deco building and you can again sense the smoke and bustle, the clattering 35mm projector, the excitement and the shared experience of a time when a great movie was a great escape and a great cinema was at the centre of the community.

And that’s not to mention that you’ll get to see the film shown properly by people who love films and cinema-going: in a theatre-style room, shown at a distance from your seat so you can see the entire frame as the director intended.

The Strand, who have just launched a ‘friends of’ scheme, always makes me think of some of the old bars we have in Northern Ireland: the ones untouched by time across decades, therefore each easily dismissed and overlooked as an ‘old man’ bar.

But if we overlook the old-man bars and the likes of the Strand too much we’ll be left with the multiplexes and the Wetherspoons and find it is too late to wind back the clock.

So, going out to watch a movie tonight? Find somewhere that wants to share a film with you, with passion and love, and you will be holding one hand out to our glorious cinema-going past. And hopefully supporting the cinema-going future for Northern Ireland too.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.