Building for Silver Screens Exhibition

Belfast has always been a city in love with cinema, as the current exhibition at Queen's Film Theatre shows

After cinema exploded into the public consciousness as a brand new medium in the first decade of the 20th century, the phrase 'build it and they will come' never seemed so appropriate.

According to Michael Open – whose work with Queen's Film Theatre in Belfast spans over three decades –in the early 1900s, demand from film lovers in the city was so powerful that a host of new theatres were erected across Belfast.

This construction boom was design led – architects followed the example set by their contemporaries in Hollywood, London and elsewhere, and built their movie theatres as spectacular art deco picture palaces.

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'In years gone by, there were over 40 cinemas operating in Belfast,' says Open. 'The cinema was a place where people could go for cheap entertainment and a bit of glitz and glamour.'

Film lovers in Belfast had a number of independent cinemas to choose from in the early and mid-1900s. In Belfast, these included the Ritz, the Curzon and the Stadium, among many others.

In 1936, the Ritz in Fisherwick Place – which was designed by British architect Leslie Kemp – was opened. With a 2,219 capacity, it was over a fifth larger than the other two Belfast city centre cinemas at the time, the Classic and the Hippodrome.

Fitted with a Compton organ and boasting the largest projection box in Europe, the Ritz was something of a phenomenon at the time, and became incredibly popular with the cinema-going public.

The magnificent Curzon, designed by popular Belfast architect J McBride Neill, also opened in 1936. It flew the flag for cinema between 1936 and 1997. 'It was a wonderful contribution to the Belfast entertainment world,' adds Open. 'What the Ritz was to size, the Curzon was to quality.'

Sadly the Curzon was demolished in 1999 after 63 years, and has now been replaced with apartments – as have so many other historic buildings across Northern Ireland.

The other major suburban Belfast cinema built in the early 19th century was the Stadium on the Shankhill Road, designed by R Sharpe Hill. It was marked by a more futuristic design, with what Open describes as an 'extraordinary motif of almost flat front stalls and steeply banked rear stalls, like a stadium'.

The Stadium's foyer was circular and it was said at the time to be large enough to host 1,400 people, although Open is sceptical of this figure. Those interested can take a look at the Stadium, and other Belfast cinemas like it, at the Building for Silver Screens exhibition at QFT, which runs until November 1, part of the 2014 Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's.

For curator Open – who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of cinema in Belfast – there is no 'golden age' of cinema in the city, but many mini golden ages dotted across the last century.

'The great period started at the beginning of the 1930s, when sound cinema had come along, and it pulled through very much until the end of the 1940s. For someone like me, whose main interest is in cinema culture, I would say that actually there have been mini golden ages of the cinema that have been going on since 1915.'

One of the highlights of 20th century cinema for Open was the film The Birth of a Nation by DW Griffith, which 'launched the cinema from something that was barely more than a fairground event into a great art'. He adds that around the same time, Chapman also transformed the comedy scene, 'moving the art of film comedy from something that was custard pie and falling on your face to incredibly subtle and moving'.

Now though, Open feels that there has been a 'dilution' in the originality of film, which has taken place over the last 15-20 years, commenting that he finds it difficult to discover new films that are original and exciting, in comparison to years gone by.

He recognises, however, that the love for cinema continues in Belfast. Open has no hesitance in defining the reason for our passion for the cinema: 'What makes the cinema great is the idea of a shared experience, that you are there and the film is bigger than you and the film is more powerful than you. You can never stop the film. You can walk out but the film goes on.

'People expect when they go to the cinema to get a more profound experience than they would [from watching] the television and, worst of all, on their computer screen. What they are seeing is just the story – in the cinema you get the experience.'

Building for the Silver Screens of Belfast runs at the Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast until November 1. Entry is free. The Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's continues in venues across the city until November 1.

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