The speed of June's reopenings took the team at the Light House Cinema by surprise. "Yes," says programme manager Charlene Lydon. "We've been having an emergency meeting. We're in disarray!" Originally cinemas had been given a June 7th date, "then they changed their minds. Now it's back again." Still, there's a smile in her voice and I'm strongly persuaded that an odd spot of behind the scenes disarray is all in a day's work.
When we first talk, shortly after the May 28th announcement, the Light House and Pálás cinemas don't have firm opening dates. Is that because they don't happen to have a cupboard full of new releases ready to roll? "The films aren't as much the problem as ordering stock," says Lydon. "We have to get in the popcorn, crisps and drinks. But, more than that, we have to get our staff back."
During the closures of the past 15 months, the management team had spent the enforced hiatus on projects including launching an online shop, repainting, working on a new website, and what Lydon describes as “smoothing out the back end”. The rest of the teams in Dublin’s Light House and Galway’s Pálás, just under 50 in total, had to be let go.
To be honest, the restrictions of how we can be reopened haven't fully been made clear – as in: how we make the buildings safe, the signage we need. There isn't a someone you can just ring up and say, 'we're not clear on this point'
“When we reopened last summer, we lost a good bunch of our staff. People had moved on, moved home, left college.” Hearing anecdotal evidence from other industries about difficulties in staff recruitment, I wonder if this is another concern on Lydon’s presumably long list. “We hired again at Christmas. I don’t know if they’ll all come back. But we didn’t have a problem then, so I hope we don’t now.”
Thinking back to Christmas, it reminds me that when I called the cinema to make contact, a recorded message announced that from December 24th, the Light House would be closed, letting you know what to do if you had booked tickets for a date over the following two weeks. Listening five months on was an eerie experience, as if you could hear the tumbleweed blowing through the foyer and darkened halls.
“It’s mad isn’t it?” Lydon says. “We thought we’d be open in January.” The length of the closure also means that there will have to be time spent staff training. “We’re looking at a three-week minimum. Especially with Covid training. To be honest,” she continues, “the restrictions of how we can be reopened haven’t fully been made clear – as in: how we make the buildings safe, the signage we need. There isn’t a someone you can just ring up and say, ‘we’re not clear on this point’.”
As with many cultural organisations, the teams at Light House and Pálás are sharing information with colleagues to work out what to do, and how best to do it. “When we closed, it was two-metre social distancing, and a cap of 50 per screen. We’re happy to do whatever we need to keep people safe, but we don’t want them to forget about us and leave it at that. With vaccinations, we should be able to lift these restrictions over time.”
Currently the two cinemas will be able to operate at 25 to 30 per cent capacity, which Lydon points out, simply isn't economically viable. But will people come back? Haven't we all been converted to the semi-somnolent delights of streaming? "I have no doubt there is a huge appetite for cinema," says Lydon confidently. "We were only open for three weeks over Christmas, but people wanted to come. Wolfwalkers was a big hit then. It had been on Apple TV," she says of the Oscar-nominated Cartoon Saloon feature. "But people wanted to see it on the big screen. We'll show it again when we reopen." Last summer brought its own supply problems, as distribution companies had held back on their big new releases. "There was Tenet, and the smaller indie films – Saint Francis and Babyteeth did well."
I don't want to sound overconfident, but I genuinely feel... everyone wants out of their house. Personally, I don't think you can touch the cinema experience
They also showed a range of older classics, "films we know our audiences really like. Mulholland Drive did really well". I think about the scene in that 2001 David Lynch film, in which Betty and Rita are facing a door you'd really rather they didn't open, and I wonder if it would be even more unsettling to an audience briefly released from lockdown. "People do like to be tormented in the cinema," Lydon laughs.
“I don’t want to sound overconfident,” she continues. “But I genuinely feel another Saturday night at home watching a new release film doesn’t do it for me. Everyone wants out of their house. Personally, I don’t think you can touch the cinema experience.” She uses the example of Nomadland: “It’s such a gorgeous-looking film, it’s got beautiful landscapes, and such subtleties, I feel like being wrapped up in it in a cinema. People need that dark room distraction from life,” she adds. “It has always been the way. There was hysteria about television, about VHS, but people will always come to the cinema.”
Still, things have changed. The gap between a cinema release and a film being available for DVD, and more recently for streaming, has shortened. Element Pictures, who run Light House and Pálás, also run the streaming service Volta, mainly dedicated to Irish releases. Lydon cites Lorcan Finnegan's Vivarium, Paddy Slattery's Broken Law and Neasa Hardiman's Sea Fever as ones to watch out for on the site.
Although they do programme major releases, Light House and Pálás are not the spots for your latest superhero megamovie. "It's the indie, the niche that do it for us. Still, we're excited about the new Wes Anderson film, The French Dispatch, coming in autumn." As Lydon talks through her encyclopaedic knowledge of movies, new and old, I start to wonder if her job as a programmer isn't a bit like trying to choose from the fancy breakfast buffet at a particularly swanky hotel. She laughs at the thought, "Yeah, maybe. I mean, everyone likes rashers and sausages, right?"
Her programming, she says, is more instinct than metrics, though the latter does play a part, and she describes the mixture of luck, serendipities and grit that go into making a film successful. Her own career path was driven simply by a love of film: after studying film theory and history, she got an internship with Element Pictures. "That was about 10 years ago. I did everything," she says. "I always had jobs, in video shops, at HMV and GameStop, anywhere that was connected to films." She spent a while writing film reviews and never getting paid. "I sort of refused to give up."
Her internship led to editorial and programming with the launch of Volta. “Then Element took over the Light House so I moved sideways in to that.” Thinking about today’s generation of graduating students, whose world map and expectations are shifting, shattering and being constantly redrawn, Lydon’s career path could well be inspirational. It’s that idea of a job forming around you, if you keep working in an area you love, and if you’re sometimes prepared to step sideways in order to move forward.
“When I left school the path seemed really unclear. So you need to know what you want, and figure out the world as you go along. At the end of the day you just need to earn enough money to live. Keep what you want to do going in the background. There are short courses you can take, it doesn’t have to be an easy route. Just keep your eyes on the prize.”