Breda O’Brien: This is no time to let Irish cinemas die

Is the tentative recovery of movie theatres thanks to blockbusters or a more nuanced audience desire?

Dublin’s Stella cinema: The success of the latest Bond film is a much-needed boost, showing that people are willing to return to cinemas. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Dublin’s Stella cinema: The success of the latest Bond film is a much-needed boost, showing that people are willing to return to cinemas. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

So James Bond has saved Irish cinema. Or has he? Is the tentative resurrection due to the impact of the Bond franchise? Is it Irish people’s love of the big screen? Is it due to Government intervention, our vaccine enthusiasm or something else entirely?

Certainly Mr Bond has given Irish movie theatres a lift. No Time to Die earned €2.35 million in its first five days in the Republic and Northern Ireland alone. Not only is that a much-needed boost, showing that people are willing to return to cinemas, but those audiences will also have seen trailers for a bumper slate of movies set to arrive in the coming weeks. There is everything from Venom: Let there Be Carnage, the latest film set in the Sony Spiderman universe, to the much-awaited Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Children’s movies have held up particularly well since cinemas reopened with much-reduced capacity in June and no doubt Boss Baby: Family Business will pack them in, although the trailer looks woeful, a convoluted mishmash attempting to capitalise on the success of the first one.

Gabriel Byrne describes ‘entering the lovely dark womb of the picture house’ and later, when he emerges [...] he ‘looked at everything as if for the first time...’

Irish people really love the cinema. Of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland, only Northern Ireland outdoes us in screen density per member of the population. Ireland had the highest rate of cinemagoing in Europe in 2019. In fact, right across Europe that year, cinema admissions increased by 4.5 per cent, resulting in the highest number of admissions since the 1990s. Then came Covid-19.

There is no doubt that the united front presented by Irish cinemas in reaction to the crisis has helped enormously. From the beginning, the message was that cinemas are safe. Ireland’s embrace of vaccination did not hurt, either.

US cinemas have had to cope with a confused, piecemeal approach across states. Some US states, far from endorsing masks and other public health measures, have passed legislation explicitly forbidding mandatory measures.

Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas in No Time to Die. Photograph: Nicola Dove
Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas in No Time to Die. Photograph: Nicola Dove

Almost 100,000 people in the US have died of Covid-19 since mid-June, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, only 2,900 of that figure were vaccinated.

No wonder Americans have been more reluctant to grab a bucket of popcorn and head to the cinema.

The Irish Government, in contrast, despite closing cinemas for a long time, also allocated €3 million to support Irish indigenous film-making, some of which was disbursed to 123 cinema venues to help them reopen safely. The PUP was also a lifeline, enabling cinemas to retain staff.

Maybe members of the Government had an experience in childhood like the actor Gabriel Byrne. He wrote a piece that was published in Magill, in 1988, in which he remembers his grandmother taking him to the cinema for the first time to see Darby O’Gill and the Little People. He describes entering “the lovely dark womb of the picture house” and later, when he emerges to where the lights from the shops are shining on the wet pavements, he “looked at everything as if for the first time, for [he] knew that something had been born within [him] and the world outside the picture house would never be quite the same again”.

I thought that this piece is something with which a lot of Irish people would identify, whether the first movie was Darby O’Gill or a Bond movie, such as Quantum of Solace, seen on a rainy afternoon on an Irish summer holiday in the mid-2000s.

When I expressed such romantic notions to Graham Spurling, whose family own and manage Movies@Cinemas, he reminded me that Irish cinemas nearly died during the 1980s. (His family happen to own both my local cinema in Dublin and the Dungarvan cinema, where we go when on holidays in Waterford.)

Unlike other countries, significant numbers of Irish cinemas are still family or Irish-owned, including single-screen operators. They know their audience

He told me that Arklow, for example, had two cinemas, both of which closed during the 1980s. He believes that it was due to an archaic distribution system that meant films took weeks and even months to get to cinemas outside Dublin.

When that distribution stranglehold was broken by UCI cinemas, which came to Tallaght in 1990, the Irish cinema scene began to expand again. In short, while Irish cinemagoers love the cinema, Spurling is sure they also want a first-class experience.

Unlike other countries, significant numbers of Irish cinemas are still family or Irish-owned, including single-screen operators. They know their audience. For example, they know that Irish audiences from Dublin to Donegal will lap up Jennifer Hudson channelling Aretha Franklin in Respect. They know that while blockbusters bring the crowds, grandparents bringing their grandchildren to the cinema and buying large boxes of popcorn are equally important.

While access to streaming movies is great in its own way, we are communal creatures. Whether it is because it stirs some ancestral memory of gathering around the fire to listen to a seanchaí, or because it represents an opportunity to escape to an alternative reality for a few hours, there is something irreplaceable about sitting with random strangers in front of the glowing screen in the big, dark auditorium. We need it more than ever in post-Covid times. This is, with apologies to Bond, no time to let cinema die.

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