Looking forward to new art houses


Six or seven multinational distribution companies, linked to the major Hollywood studios, monopolise our cinema screens. But a new initiative to foster art house cinema on the island of Ireland could open up new  opportunities to show and ultimately to produce more interesting, independent-made film. Hugh Linehan reports

On the face of it, film-going in Ireland is booming. All over the country, cinemas have been refurbished and new multiplexes built. Statistics show that people are going to more and more films every year. But if your tastes extend beyond Spider-Man, Attack of the Clones or About a Boy, and you live outside Dublin, Cork or Belfast, your choices are pretty limited. There's nothing wrong with those enjoyable films (well, with the arguable exception of Attack of the Clones), but the lack of variety on offer becomes dispiriting.

Six or seven multinational distribution companies, linked to the major Hollywood studios, monopolise our screens, while modern release strategies mean that the same mega-titles are on show in every cinema (often on more than one screen within the same complex). The chances of seeing such excellent recent releases as the Bosnian satire No Man's Land, the Mexican romantic drama Y Tu Mama Tambien or even the highly popular French fantasy Amelie are few and far between.

Now the Arts Council, with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Northern Irish Film and Television Commission and the Irish Film Board, has formed a consortium to "enhance access to art house cinema on the island of Ireland and in particular to foster an attractive and viable environment for exhibiting art house film". The consortium has issued a call for expressions of interest for capital development in art house cinemas (defined as two/three-screen dedicated cinema facilities) in urban centres, particularly outside Dublin city centre, and by the refurbishment of buildings including disability access and also upgrading technical facilities.

The "art house" tag is by definition an unsatisfactory one, with its connotations of elitism and snobbery, but alternative phrases such as "cultural cinema" are equally problematic. The purpose of the new initiative, however, is admirable: to offer Irish audiences greater access to the diversity of world cinema.

The consortium's exhibition policy is intended to "broaden access to cultural cinema on the island of Ireland and to ensure audiences have a quality cultural experience with regard to world cinema, indigenous film-making and classic film, often in specialist venues driven by an educational or cultural remit".

The new initiative is the culmination of a lengthy process of discussion and consultation over several years, encompassing two independent reports, a pilot programme of exhibition support to special events and festivals and exhaustive debates and seminars. While some exasperation has been expressed at the slowness of the process, the caution of the funding agencies is understandable: building and running cinemas is an expensive business, and the spectre of white elephants looms large. And the potential for untapped audiences around the country remains debatable - older readers may recall the old Irish Film Theatre's disastrous expansion to Limerick in the 1970s.

Mick Hannigan of Cork's Kino Cinema welcomes the initiative. "It's movement, and I felt we were being consulted to the point of exhaustion," he says. "I'm sorry it's taken such a long time, but finally there is a proposal and a strategy and a timetable." The establishment of the consortium follows a report the Arts Council commissioned last year on "Developing Cultural Cinema in Ireland".

It found commercial cinema has been going through a period of extraordinary growth and investment in new multiplex development; that the rate of cinema-going increased by 20 per cent in 2000, to 4.1 visits per person a year: and that opportunities to engage with art house film were not available to audiences around the island. "Only four cinemas operate on a full-time basis as art house cinemas," it pointed out. "Belfast's Queen's Film Theatre, the Kino in Cork and the Irish Film Centre and the Screen Cinema in Dublin." It also noted: "High per capita cinema attendance often occurs in smaller centres which have a high concentration of students and affluent socio-economic groupings, especially in Galway, Cork, Limerick and Waterford."

THE consortium has now announced three programmes. The first offers capital investment in two/three-screen dedicated cinemas in urban centres, to commence building by the end of 2004. Expressions of interest will need to include expertise in art house programming and exhibition, convincing business plans and, crucially, involvement of, or indication of interest by, a local authority. "In the consortium's view, the success and viability of any initiative in this area will depend on the active involvement of the local authorities", according to the explanatory document issued last week. State aid from participating agencies will be in the order of €5 million over five years, with the pre-requisite that local authorities are involved in developments from the outset.

The second programme will invest in building refurbishment such as improving disability access and improving health and safety, while the third will invest in equipment such as stereo and Dolby sound systems, screens, projectors, audio loop and seating. Each of these offers €1.5 million over five years.

Reading between these lines, the intention appears to be to support the development of cinemas in those mid-sized urban centres which can viably support them. The million-euro question, therefore, is how viable these cinemas might be. The commitment to "two/three-screen" venues reflects the conventional wisdom that single-screen cinemas fail to achieve the critical mass required to sustain an audience. With more than one screen, an exhibitor can maximise box-office revenue from the fims it shows, and offer a broader range of titles to its audience.

Hannigan will be hoping to receive backing for his plans to increase the Kino in size from its current one screen, either at its current location or in a new venue. "There's nothing more frustrating than having to pull a film before the end of its natural run," he says. "Exactly the same economies of scale apply to arthouse exhibitors as to multiplexes. It's certainly the direction in which we want to move, and would allow us to show a broader range of film-making."

According to Hannigan, the fact that the Kino is the only non-multiplex cinema to open in Ireland since the IFC demonstrates the need for State support for cultural cinema. "The market won't invest in it," he says. "It's too risky, too capital-intensive, which means it's exactly what the Arts Council should be supporting." He also sees the emphasis on local authority involvement as significant. "There'll be lobbying and explanation to be done, but I think local authorities are catching up with their European counterparts in seeing the importance of cultural activities. If the authorities can provide access to buildings or property, then you can see how it could work."

"I think the intention may be to flush out whatever interest is there," says Maretta Dillon, a co-author of last year's cultural cinema report, who is also director of Access Cinema, the umbrella organisation for Irish film societies. Dillon believes credit should go to the Arts Council for moving ahead on the issue, and that the consortium has "put it up to people, which is useful and acts as a catalyst," but thinks it unlikely the proposed model of stand-alone, multi-screen regional facilities will be viable in more than two urban centres (probably Galway and Cork).

She believes Access Cinema members, such as the Belltable Arts Centre in Limerick, might want to set up a dedicated one-screen space. "The proposals may not take account of what's actually there on the ground," she says. "I can think of other one-screen facilities that may cometo the fore." For Hannigan, the future, particularly for smaller urban centres, may lie in the rapid developments in digital projection and distribution. "I'm heartened to see digital mentioned in the document," he says. "It holds out the possibility of audiences having access to a wider range of cinema at a lower cost. You can have a projector in coffeeshops or arts centres. You can have digital lounges."

As for the perennial question of capital versus current spending, Hannigan believes new cinemas will be viable entities as long as they're not saddled with major debt burdens at the outset. "Once the ratio of bank repayments to weekly income is satisfactory, it should be possible to set up a cinema in Limerick, say." According to the Arts Council, expressions of interest in the new programmes must be submitted by July 19th, and selected invitations to apply for grant aid will be issued by the end of September, with appraisal due to be completed by the end of January 2003.

"It seems well thought-out to me," says Hannigan. "It will be interesting now to see who sends in those expressions of interest."