Northern Ireland’s film exhibition sector continues to benefit and grow thanks to the efforts of Film Hub NI. Still in its first year of existence, this initiative, which is based at Queen’s Film Theatre (QFT) and sits within Queen’s University’s Culture & Arts Department, forms the Northern Ireland arm of the Film Audience Network. The Network, established by the British Film Institute (BFI), seeks to provide support, investment and information to the specialised film arena throughout the United Kingdom.
According to interim project manager, Hugh Odling-Smee, ‘At its heart the Film Hub is an audience development program and what the BFI is trying to do is to put investment into showing more specialised and cultural films.’ He points out that the aim is not simply to base such activities in London, hoping that regional theatres, like QFT, take part. Instead, there is a sustained move to be ‘proactive about assisting film clubs, film societies, local authority arts venues and so on to take cinema, and specialised cinema, more seriously as a programming tool.’ These bodies constitute the film exhibition sector and it is on them that Film Hub NI is concentrating its efforts.
Specialised film is defined, basically, as that sitting outside the realm of the commercial multiplexes, though it should not be taken as an euphemism for obscure or unfriendly. Foreign language pictures, documentaries and classic movies all fall within the scope of this area and it is these genres which Film Hub NI is keen to promote. ‘To a certain extent it’s about consciousness and people being aware of films,’ says Odling-Smee. ‘I don’t think that commercial cinemas are scared of specialised film. There’s no snobbery but their marketing system and processes aren’t really designed to sell those kind of films.’
Local audiences, however, are more and more receptive to specialised content. Odling-Smee recalls the success of the French multiple Oscar-winner, The Artist, which pulled in hefty crowds at both QFT and mainstream venues. ‘There used to be the old joke about people not wanting to watch films with subtitles. I don’t think that really happens in the same way anymore. I think people are a lot more culturally aware of that sort of stuff, there’s a lot less fear and people are more willing to take a punt.’ Exposure, he suggests, is crucial: ‘Our job is to make sure that the films are available, in their area, to see.’
Film Hub NI’s second round of funding, which opened on 4th March, has not been ignorant of commercial outlets as a means of spreading niche fare. The Strand in east Belfast, a stately old landmark in that part of the city, will receive investment to allow for experimentation with programming. ‘What we would like them to do is feel that they can take some risks,’ says Odling-Smee. Off the back of this funding the Strand intends to work with pensioner groups in developing a schedule of features from the Forties and Fifties.
Odling-Smee is quick to highlight the fact that the exhibition sector, as it stands currently, is far from a sparsely populated one. Societies, clubs and festivals exist from Dungannon to Newry. Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart also looks set to build its own club with the aid of Film Hub NI. Newcastle Community Cinema — voted the best film society in the UK two years running — ‘do amazing things’ he says. Recently, a showing of Jaws took place at an outdoor swimming pool in the town. ‘It’s a really innovative way of programming; an innovative way of creating a film experience,’ adds Odling-Smee. ‘What we want to do is take that baseline and develop it and put investment into it.’
That investment by Film Hub NI is substantial. ‘It’s certainly the biggest, in this sector, that there has ever been,’ he says. A total of £800k will be made available to members over the next four years and membership is open to all capable of demonstrating a clear commitment to the Hub’s objectives. The funding arrangements are divided into two tiers of up to £15k and £9k respectively. Given the relatively small sums required to exhibit a specialised film, says Odling-Smee, the figures quoted are significant. ‘There is a value for money element to this. It’s about getting as many people as we possibly can in to see films; building the audience up from quite a low level in Northern Ireland.’
The recognition that cinema plays more than a single role — be it one of distraction, commentary, or expression — is central to Film Hub NI’s remit. ‘It has a place as an entertainment in people’s lives but I think, more and more, there is an awareness that, culturally, it has a lot to say,’ says Odling-Smee, invoking one of the best films to spring from these shores in recent years. ‘I think something like Good Vibrations was very interesting because it was a piece of art that came from Northern Ireland which was full of ideas about what art means… Those kind of films can be tremendously satisfying.’
In a society as particular as Northern Ireland, there are positives to be gained through such an approach. In Odling-Smee’s view, film crosses religious boundaries and divides. ‘It’s a very universal art form. It’s not favoured by one community or one group. It has its benefits in terms of where we can reach and where we can go with it.’
An edited version of this article was first published here.