Recapturing that old movie magic
A cinema needs to have a reason to exist, otherwise people will just stay at home watch their nasty flatscreen. And by and large, these things are run by people who love film, writes UNA MULLALLY
WHEN THE Light House Cinema in Smithfield in Dublin put tickets on sale for a 5am screening of The Dark Knight Rises in July to coincide with the film opening in New York, they figured they would have to tempt people to come, so decided to offer free coffee and pastries to fans. Six hundred people turned up, selling out each screen in the cinema.
“That initial decision to provide breakfast for everybody was so shortsighted!” Tom Lawlor – the marketing manager at the Light House and Volta, the Irish online film streaming service – simultaneously laughs and stresses out at the memory. “There is a certain element of divilment that goes on in our meetings. So we just did it,” Light House programmer Charlene Lydon says. The interesting successes in Dublin cinemas these days seem to be born from a demand for fun and a desire for the sense of an event.
While creating a cult around a film is nothing new, over the past decade or so, it seems to have been done very much outside the commercial cinema model. It’s a long time since The Ambassador screened Stop Making Sense, (The Light House resurrected it recently) but various fans of specific films – The Rocky Horror Picture Show probably being the most enduring example – would take it upon themselves to host screenings that amped up the traditional passive cinema-going experience.
Yet by and large, cinemas in Ireland, keen to stick to formulaic screenings and the releases of the day, didn’t really have to think of alternative approaches to showing movies, because the customers kept coming (Ireland has the highest cinema admissions per capita in Europe). But as commercial cinemas work harder to get punters in, and film lovers are inspired by other events around the world, going to see a film as an occasion, a social experience, is becoming increasingly common.
Derek O’Connor is a writer, a film-maker and an independent film programmer who programmes seasons with the Irish Film Institute (IFI) in Temple Bar, “For example, when The Raid came out, it’s like, what a great opportunity to revisit action movies,” he says, explaining his programming methods as “a more lateral approach to programming”.
Part of this yearning for new audience experiences has to do with how predictable going to the cinema has become. As independent theatres close, cinemas all feel the same. “The multiplex experience has become increasingly anonymous,” O’Connor says. “You’re watching a product being screened digitally in a room with people who can’t sit and watch a movie without taking phone calls. But if you’re in a room full of people who are there to have an experience and truly love it, there’s nothing like it.”
O’Connor points to the idea of bringing a sense of occasion back to cinema, and indeed, often taking film outside of cinemas, such as the Dublin cult that has sprung up around parties thrown for The Room, a recent screening of Mean Girls at the Sugar Club, and drive-in events at the Earagail Arts Festival.
“A cinema needs to have a reason to exist, otherwise people will just stay at home watch it on their nasty flatscreen,” O’Connor says, “And by and large, these things are run by people who love film.”
Take two of the Light House, run by Element, is an entirely different beast to its recent predecessor. Aside from special screenings such as The Dark Knight Rises, there’s a relentless stream of mini-festivals and specially programmed seasons coming out of the cinema; the ‘America F*** Yeah’ season, a Hitchcock season, Fright House, the upcoming Paul Thomas Anderson season, the recent OneTwoOneTwo music documentary festival. GAZE, the Dublin International LGBT Film Festival is also back in the Light House. Across town, the IFI’s well-established Horrorthon finishes up tonight and their French Film Festival begins on November 14th. The IFI maintains a slightly reserved attitude though, especially in contrast to its hyper-cousin over in Smithfield.
“When we reopened the Light House, it was very clear we were operating in a landscape that’s specific to Dublin in that there’s a number of cinemas that we’re competing against,” Lawlor says, “And so our programming had to stand out . . . So if there was a big release that we know other cinemas are going to have, how do we put a context around that to make sense for it to be here? We kind of presumed at the very outset that the collective experience of cinema is something that I don’t necessarily think has dropped off in a huge way, but actually there’s a market to develop it even further.”
Lydon cites Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads concert film that ran for 10 weeks at the Light House as an example, and she has also recently programmed a Film Noir season. “The fact is, the landscape is changing for film. People are downloading films illegally or whatever, and it makes it much, much cheaper. So people will say ‘people aren’t going to the cinema anymore’, which is not necessarily true because you still pack out cinemas, but you do have to work harder to get people into your cinema.
“And I think that’s about making it fun, making it something you do want to do as an event, that you then choose ‘I’m going to watch Top Gun in this cinema with a bunch of people who are totally wired’ or ‘I’m going to watch Top Gun at home on a DVD’. As a film lover, I would much rather watch every film on a massive screen with lovely sound in a room full of people than watching it on my own. Even if it means I have to pay a tenner and go out.”
From live satellite QAs after films, such as Ice-T with Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap and James Murphy’s after the LCD Soundsystem film Shut Up And Play The Hits, to messages from directors, and themed seasons which often feel like mini-festivals, commercial cinema in Ireland is finally becoming more inventive.
Speaking to programmers, references to Alamo Drafthouse come up a lot, the Austin theatre that brought the fun and attitude back into screenings in the late 1990s. Also looking across the Atlantic is Vincent Donnelly, who ran the second annual Movie Fest in Cineworld on Parnell Street in Dublin last month. The major studios give Donnelly trailers, footage and behind-the-scenes stuff from films in development.
“We have shout-outs from actors and directors. We also have some special guests pop in, directors coming in from LA to talk about their films.” When Donnelly started Movie Fest, he was slightly worried that people wouldn’t come, that they wouldn’t be as enthusiastic about clips and trailers and the trimmings of films. He needn’t have worried. “It turns out there are lots of nerds like me!”