The Rise of the Community Cinema

They're popping up all over Northern Ireland – and the recession is 'grist to the mill'

Elderly residents of Newcastle, County Down, may remember the two cinemas that the town used to have, which closed their doors long before my generation came along. Thereafter, its residents had to make do with occasional touring prints of whatever blockbuster was doing the rounds projected in the Newcastle Centre.

It's a tradition that goes back far enough for me to have seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade there, 20 or so years ago, perched atop rickety seating and surrounded by my wailing peers. But, in the last couple of years, a new cinema club has been formed to fill the void, established by locals with a passion for film.

'It was a meeting of minds, really,' says founding member, Rob Manley. 'A few film-loving souls bemoaning the lack of any cinema in Newcastle. As soon as we realised we were all equally passionate about good films we started to look into the possibility of starting our own community cinema.'

Alerted to the scheduling of a fortuitously timed seminar on how to start a film society by Northern Ireland Screen, the government-backed agency for the promotion of film in Northern Ireland, the idea became a reality.

'From there, things really accelerated,' says Manley, who helped set up the cinema in Newcastle’s suitably gothic Annesley Hall. 'We had our first screening two years ago, and have been showing great films every month since.'

While the nearest multi-screen cinemas in Downpatrick, Newry and Belfast ply the latest Hollywood blockbusters, and little else, Newcastle Cinema is more interested in championing the lesser known, or the forgotten gems, of world cinema.

'We are all in agreement that most films appearing at the local multiplexes these days aren't really up to much,' adds Manley. 'So we try to keep a healthy mix of quality, slightly off the wall features from the 1960s, 70s and 80s, alternating with bang up-to-date, fresh from the film festivals indie features and shorts from the USA and other world cinema studios.'

As well as screening little-known art house movies, Newcastle Cinema have shown that small, independently run cinemas can also attract emerging film-makers and premieres.

'We’ve premiered two films over the last 18 months including one film, Marwencol, that we showed a week before it appeared at the Belfast Film Festival,' says Manley. 'That was a big coup for our little cinema, as we received the film direct from the film-maker himself.'

Their second premiere – another fine example of Newcastle Cinema's dedication to left of centre cinema – in November 2011, was the John Landis produced Some Guy Who Kills People, starring the well-regarded character actor, Kevin Corrigan.

Manley argues that the dominance of mainstream cinema can be a primary motivating factor for those establishing cinema clubs and community cinemas in towns and villages throughout Northern Ireland. And he certainly is not the only one who thinks so.

'The goal was to bring a wider selection of films from around the world to the residents of Newry and the surrounding area,' says Aidan Lennon on the set up of the Newry Film Club. 'The type of films you wouldn’t see in the local Omniplex.'

Ann McDermott of Fermanagh Films For All agrees. 'We started as the films available in the local cinemas tended to be the blockbuster type, and we wanted to bring a choice of art house cinema to Fermanagh.'

Very few of the community cinema operations established in recent years were dreamt up as money-spinners, either, but were born, plainly and simply, out of a love for cinema. 'The film club was never intended as a money making venture,' says Aidan Lennon. 'All of the organisers work on a voluntary basis and put some serious hours in, believe me!'

An additional hurdle is the support, or the perceived lack thereof, from local councils. Residents in Newcastle, for example, have campaigned for a dedicated arts and retail space for decades, without much success. Inevitably, then, community cinemas are a stop gap solution for residents who believe that arts activity is essential for the welfare of residents and visitors alike.

'We have really had no input from our local council,' says Ann McDermott. 'They did offer us a place to show films, but as it is a gallery space with no blackout potential, we were unable to use it. We have got no financial support though, which is a pity. We look with envy at what some councils provide. Strule for example, in Omagh, or almost any small town in the Republic has a 'black box' space, or something suitable for showing films.'

In the meantime, the Fermanagh Film Club make do with the resources available to them. 'For now we show in Fermanagh House on a DVD player and project onto the wall, but we are looking hopefully for the future.'

Back in Newcastle, Manley feels McDermott's pain. 'As it stands, we have received no official funding whatsoever – we have relied on various fund raising events to get us off the ground, and little by little, as the tickets and popcorn money has fed through, we have been able to grow and buy ourselves new equipment.

'Initially NI Screen did have funding allocated for setting up film societies, but the recession soon put paid to any endeavours like community cinemas. We have been involved with the local council through associations with festivals throughout the year, but financially we have had to be pretty much self sufficient.'

It seems that of the three interviewed, only the Newry Film Club gets the assistance of their local council. 'We have had some support from the council in past years,' says Lennon, their representative. 'But we haven’t got this every year.'

Despite the current economic climate it seems that a demand exists for cinema outside of the main commercial centres. Rather than stifle the community cinema movement, the recession as acted as grist to the mill, with the Fermanagh Film Club, Derry~Londonderry’s Magic Lantern Film Society, the Nerve Centre Film Club and others all establishing themselves in the last few years. Manley seems especially hopeful.

'We deliver a good old fashioned cinema experience in a great venue, with the delicious smell of freshly popped corn in the foyer, and a rich, diverse selection of quality movies showing monthly for a fiver,' he concludes. 'What's not to love? Long live the silver screen in County Down!'

Is there a community cinema in your area that you would like to promote? Post a link/comment below.