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.

  • Turgon

    One of the problems for the cinema which I heard discussed on the radio is that television now has such good dramas especially multipart ones it may reduce people’s “need” to go to the cinema.

    The only other observations I would make are that an interval is a good idea to my mind as it would allow sale of stuff by the cinema and adds to the whole specialness of the event.

    I am interested in your comment about being too close to the screen and in general agree. However, when Schindler’s List came out I went with one of my university friends to it – at the Dublin Road multiplex. The cinema was packed and we were right at the front. I was disappointed but actually it made the whole thing more intense. We had to look between Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes when they were haggling over the price of saving each person’s life. I still remember when the film finished no one spoke. We were back on the Dublin Road before I noticed a single person who had been in that screening speak.

  • Turgon,

    Long-term reader, first time reply-er!

    Many thanks for those thoughts. I completely agree re TV drama. Something like Sherlock on BBC tends to make me think ‘I’ve paid to watch much worse than that in the cinema’.

    I’m in two minds about having an interval: perhaps at a special event screening, but for a bog-standard multiplex screening they’d have to have something better than a bag of Revels and a mystery-meat hot-dog to offer.

    As it happens I watched Shindler’s List in the State Cinema, where they had an interval but it was, presumably, to switch the reel.

    Sitting closer for an intense movie – Whiplash might have been a good example – is something I haven’t come across before and is an interesting point, I’ll watch out for that.

  • First movie I remember seeing at the cinema was Rocky 4 in the Canon? ABC? one of the 2 at the bottom of the Grosvenor Road. My mum made me traipse round town with her one Saturday morning and as a way of rewarding my lack of huffiness, we just stopped and joined the queue on our way home.
    I used to love the cinema and go at least once a month.

    Cinema is such an expensive pastime these days though – I understand there are some good annual tickets and loyalty schemes out there, but for occasional visitors.
    My main bug bear though, is the noise in cinemas.
    I don’t mean other people talking, eating etc, that’s annoying enough, but the worst thing is when I’m trying to watch something that’s relatively quiet and my seat is shaking from the bass in Transformers playing in the next screen.

  • I think the cinema has been used as a way of pacifying and silencing children for decades. I’ve gratefully slept through more than one kids film and it was worth every penny.

    Ticket cost for a family can become pretty expensive, absolutely. For occasional visits there are usually reduced prices some weeknights etc. As far as I know the Tuesday and Thursday classics in the Strand are £3 a ticket!

    The issue of noise from another screen seems to vary from cinema to cinema, I might be wrong but some of the newer purpose-built cinemas seem to have the advantage on this score. I’d be surprised if Omniplex cinemas have any of this ‘bleed’ (I have no connection to Omniplex cinemas) as they seem to take care with how their films look and sound.

  • You should strike up conversations with people as you leave the screen! Someone’s got to start … though I’ve noticed that even those previewing films often leave in silence only speaking to the person they’ve come with.

    The Odeon certainly feels like a sugary confectioner with optional cinema screens bolted on. Even in London where the quality of the projected picture and focus was sometimes dodgy when I was a regular – though their early day screenings can be good value.

    It’s been good to see the Omniplex becoming a little more experimental with their programming in recent months. And the Moviehouse have long supported BFF and local premieres. Long may that continue to develop.

  • Honorary mention for Devour Film Festival which screens shorts (sub-15 minutes) made in or connected to Ireland in the Black Box every few months. Lots of local talent, some of whom have gone on to make longer films. And lots of discussion about movies. Next one on 24 August.

  • Now there’s an idea, and makes even more sense at previews as some of those who attend previews would be interested to know how others felt about the movie.

    I had an experience with an Odeon cinema outside NI when I dropped them a line afterwards to let them know that – to my untrained ear – it sounded like one of their speakers was out of action and the dialogue was hard to hear. The reply gave the impression that it would be looked at next time the technical person came to visit….what struck me was (and as Mark Kermode has written about at length) not only was there apparently no one on-site who could take a look at the settings, but when cinema staff pop their head in the door of the screen to check on things they don’t appear to take a quick look/ listen to the movie itself or they’d already have known about the sound issue.

    Very good point re Movie House, they have been a central player as long as I can remember and I tend to think of the Dublin Road cinema as the Europa Hotel of local cinemas.

  • There’s also a group who screen documentaries in the Pavillion on Sunday nights, there was a Mindful Movies group at one time…delighted to say that it is hard to keep up with the number of groups organising screenings.

  • Was a brilliant idea for a screening – really sorry I missed that one.