Researching the History of Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast

Sam Manning, Queen’s University Belfast

23 May 2018



In January 2018, I began an AHRC Creative Economy Engagement Fellowship working in partnership with Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and Film Hub NI (part of the British Film Institute’s UK-wide Film Audience Network). The goal of my project is to develop links between people like myself who research historical cinema attendance and a creative organisation that encourages citizens to engage with Northern Ireland’s cinema heritage. Film Hub NI works as an advocate for cinema in Northern Ireland and is managed by Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast (QFT), Northern Ireland’s only dedicated full-time cultural cinema. In October 2018, QFT celebrates its fiftieth anniversary – to mark this event, I am researching the history of the cinema, developing an exhibition and leading a series of public engagement activities across the region. Through these outputs, I hope to engage audiences and support an organisation rooted in Northern Ireland’s creative and cultural economy.

Queen’s Film Theatre, Screen One


UK cinema attendance peaked in 1946 with 1.6 billion admissions. From the mid-1950s, however, attendances entered freefall and by the 1960s the heyday of cinema-going was over. Even before the Troubles, many Belfast cinemas closed, including five venues from 1966 to ‘67. In 1968, despite these ominous signs in the film exhibition industry, QFT opened in a converted lecture hall on the university campus with a policy of ‘showing the best international films past and present’. It also built on a local tradition of screening films not shown by commercial exhibitors: The Belfast Film Society held regular screenings in the 1930s, and from 1951, the QUB Film Society exhibited films in the university’s Whitla Hall. While QFT was an independent cinema operated by Queen’s, it was similar to the BFI’s Regional Film Theatres, which opened across the UK from 1967 onwards, providing venues for independent, art house and foreign-language films. QFT was intended to be self-supporting, but its early years were marked by financial problems and difficulties attracting external funding – the cinema even closed briefly in 1972, before receiving extra funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. From the mid-1980s, the cinema’s financial situation improved further – it screened a wide range of films and hosted renowned directors, such as Alan Parker. By its twentieth anniversary, a new smaller second screen was opened, and luxury French upholstery replaced the old wooden seats. In 2004, the entire site was refurbished, and the entrance moved from a shabby rear alleyway to a grander Victorian doorway facing onto the university campus. The building will receive a further upgrade for its fiftieth anniversary, which will ensure that it remains a much-loved venue used by cinema-goers, students and QUB staff.

QFT Entrance, 1970s

QFT Entrance, 2004-present

Project Aims and Sources

The project aims not only to trace the cinema’s history, but also to shed light on new research questions: How has QFT adapted to changes in film distribution and exhibition over the past fifty years? What have been the challenges of operating a cultural cinema, especially in a divided society such as Northern Ireland? What is unique about QFT and how does it compare to other similar venues in the UK and Ireland? Who went to QFT and how were they experiences shaped by their age, class, gender and national identity?

I started the project by identifying archival material in Belfast. The McClay Library’s University Archive contains records of the QUB Film Society and a selection of QFT programmes. To find more about the cinema’s relationship with the university, I looked at the Vice Chancellor’s annual reports and the University Senate Minutes. The Gown—QUB’s student newspaper—has reported on QFT since its opening and provides a greater understanding of how students used and viewed the cinema. Finally, the annual reports of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland provide a valuable insight into the funding of the cinema. This was a long and drawn-out process – I’m sure all researchers will know the feeling of searching thousands of records for scraps of information relevant to their own research. I knew that the cinema had a Film Theatre Committee and was operated by the Arts Centre Management Board. Why, however, were these records not held in the University Archive? Fortunately, my fear that these records no longer existed was unfounded and I discovered a cornucopia of material in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. Its holdings provide a rich insight into the operation, programming and attendance figures of QFT, and key figures such as founders Michael Emmerson and Michael Barnes, and long-serving administrator Michael Open. These records are complemented by local newspaper articles and various records held by Film Hub NI. I also plan to consult material further afield in places such as the British Film Institute’s Reuben Library and Special Collections. Furthermore, I have no doubt that a range of ephemera is stored in people’s loft and garages. My task is to find and collate this material, draw out the major themes of the cinema’s history, and adapt it for use in an exhibition setting.

These sources do not, however, capture the impact of the cinema and the experiences of the people who regularly visited this cultural venue. During my PhD research on the history of post-war cinema-going I recorded oral history interviews with Belfast cinema-goers. Given the importance of public engagement to the current project, I am using this research method to record interviews documenting the memories and experiences of former and current staff, cinema-goers, members, funders and notable visitors. The interviews will focus on cinema-going experiences, favourite films and the importance of QFT to the social and cultural life of Belfast. This testimony will show the variety of ways that people have experienced the cinema and how these have changed over time. Clips from these interviews will be used in the exhibition and will then be archived at QUB for future researchers. They may even be used as part of the cinema’s 60th, 70th, or even 100th birthday celebrations!

Public Engagement

QFT50 Website

How do I use this material to engage a broad public audience and increase knowledge of Northern Ireland’s Cinema Heritage? Alongside the creation of an exhibition, I will use the primary source material to write both academic and popular articles, placing the cinema in its social, cultural, political and economic context. This project also provides an opportunity to engage current QUB students and to show how knowledge of cinema’s exhibition history can help inform contemporary practices. With the support of Film Hub NI, I hope to take the project beyond Belfast, visiting film societies across Northern Ireland. These events will be linked to talks and film screenings that will contextualise the material and show how the cinema’s impact has stretched beyond Belfast.

In 2017, Sam Manning completed his PhD thesis at Queen’s University Belfast. It provided a regional analysis of post-war UK cinema-going, arguing that place was as great a determinant of leisure practices as other factors such as age, class and gender. It used forty-eight oral history interviews alongside a range of quantitative and qualitative sources such as local newspapers, trade journals, box-office statistics and cinema records. He is now adapting this thesis into a monograph for the Royal Historical Society’s New Historical Perspectives series. In 2016, he published an article in Cultural and Social History on post-war cinema-going in a working-class Belfast community. A further article on television and the decline of cinema-going in Northern Ireland is due for publication in Media History in 2018 (available online). He is also a postdoctoral researcher on the AHRC European Cinemas project.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

A Day at the Archives… the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles

James Chapman, University of Leicester

24 April 2018


The two most reassuring words a researcher can hear are ‘nothing’s changed.’ So you can imagine my relief on my second visit to the marvellous Margaret Herrick Library when the man on the reception desk greeted me with: ‘Hello, James, I remember you’ve been here before … Well, it’s all the same. Nothing’s changed.’

The Margaret Herrick Library is part of the Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study and is housed in a palm tree-fringed mock-Spanish colonial building that was formerly the headquarters of the Beverly Hills Waterworks. It’s named after the founding librarian of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who also served as the Academy’s executive director from 1945 to 1971. It was Margaret Herrick who negotiated the first televised screening of the Academy Awards and turned the annual ‘Oscar’ ceremony into a major media event. If you’re there early in January before the Oscar nominees are announced, keep your ears open for gossip and speculation about who the front runners might be.

The Herrick is probably the world’s largest reference and research collection ‘devoted to the history and development of the motion picture as an art form and an industry’. It includes books, film periodicals and journals, scripts and still photographs. There are over a thousand special collections ranging from the archives of some of the major studios (including MGM and Paramount) and other industry organisations (the records of the Production Code Administration, for example) to personal papers: the H’s alone include William S. Hart, Edith Head, Paul Henreid, Charlton Heston, George Roy Hill, Arthur Hiller, Alfred Hitchcock, Hedda Hopper, Ian McLellan Hunter and John Huston. To get a sense of what’s there before your visit, you can browse the collections on the library’s well-laid out website:

I’ve visited the Herrick four or five times over the last seven years – usually in September when the library is pretty quiet and the oppressive heat of the Los Angeles summer is starting to become a more bearable daily high of around 75 Fahrenheit. It’s a very pleasant environment in which to work. The staff are invariably friendly, helpful and knowledgeable about movies. One day, for example, I was sitting at my usual place in the Special Collections area when Barbara Hall, one of the Academy’s archivists and film researchers, came over to say hello. ‘Have you seen one of these?’ she asked, opening the display cabinet at the back of the room and handing me John Huston’s Best Screenplay Oscar for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1949). (I did have to put it back …)

My top three archive ‘eureka moments’ at the Herrick so far have been:

  • The ‘damned dirty ape’ line in Planet of the Apes (1968) arose from an insertion by star Charlton Heston. The original line was the rather anodyne ‘No! That’s where I draw the line! I won’t wear a muzzle!’ In Heston’s own annotated copy of the shooting script this has been scored out and replaced with a handwritten ‘Take your dirty hands off me, you damned monkey!’ In the finished film the line is: ‘Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!’
  • Paramount’s War of the Worlds (1953) originated as a proposal to make a film of the panic caused by the notorious Orson Welles radio broadcast of October 1938.
  • An early treatment for Personal History – which became Foreign Correspondent (1940) – in the Alfred Hitchcock Collection reveals that the character played in the film by George Sanders, one Scott ffolliott, was based on a certain English journalist and future thriller writer: ‘The American meets several of the other foreign correspondents, among them one on the English “Times”, Ian Fleming, whom he rather despises, for his apparent effeminacy, suede shoes and affected drawl.’

These examples – and other researchers will have had their own ‘eureka moments’ – highlight the real value of archival research. It’s not just that we can consult scripts, censors’ reports, budgets and production records to do the nitty-gritty work of documenting the production histories of films, or look at the studio’s records of test screenings, weekly box-office returns and files of press clippings to analyse the popular and critical reception. We also get insights into the wider social and political discourses operating within the film industry. Joseph Breen, for example, always seems to have been most concerned about policing overt displays of sexuality, warning producers in just about every letter of ‘the need for the greatest possible care in the selection and photography of the costumes and dresses for your women’ regardless of the subject matter or genre of the films.

And archive research often challenges received wisdoms about film history arising from more anecdotal sources. The late Martin Landau, for example, claimed that it was his decision to play the character of henchman Leonard in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) as gay – and that Hitchcock was happy to go along with it. But the early drafts of the screenplay in both the MGM Scripts Collection and the Alfred Hitchcock Collection reveal that Leonard was written as a homosexual man from the outset long before Landau was cast. Robert Vogel, MGM’s liaison with the Production Code office, cautioned that ‘Leonard is going to be skating on very thin ice. He doesn’t have to be the very essence of manliness, but if his “unmistakably effeminate attitudes” give audiences, the Code people, or the Legion of Decency a feeling that he is a pervert, we’re in trouble.’ The Code people did indeed object and told the studio that they would not approve the film if Leonard was portrayed as homosexual. However, it is an indication of the declining authority of the Code by the end of the 1950s that in the event they allowed the film with Leonard’s reference to ‘my women’s intuition’ intact. The censor did, however, insist on over-dubbing ‘Come on, Mrs Thornhill’ as Cary Grant pulls Eva Marie Saint into the train bunk to demonstrate the couple are married. Watch the scene carefully, and you’ll see that Grant doesn’t move his lips as he says it.

What researching at the Herrick really brings home is how well resourced the big American archives are. Its holdings for the studio period, especially, are extensive. In contrast British archives – with the exception of the Film Finances Archive – rarely have such rich collections of production materials. It’s free to use and the charges for copying are modest by archive standards.

I hope nothing’s going to change.

Using the library

It’s an easy – if slightly arcane – library to use. You don’t need to pre-book your visit or reserve a place in advance – most days there might not be more than about a dozen people using the library. Enter through the front door and at the desk on the left fill out a registration slip: you’ll need a photographic ID. If you have a bag or coat, you’ll need to leave these in one of the lockers in the lobby: the security guard at the desk will give you a token for the lockers. Then you head up the Kirk Douglas Staircase to the Cecil B. De Mille Reading Room, where you hand over your registration slip at the desk at the top of the stairs and they’ll make out a reader’s card for you. Then – as the staff like to say – you’re ‘all good to go’.

The usual archive rules apply: laptops, pads and pencils. No photography. You can order photocopies of published materials and press clippings but not special collections materials.

You can read more about using the library on its own website at:

The Cecil B. De Mille Reading Room is a long open-plan room with books on the open shelves. There’s a help desk at the far end of the room. If you’ve ordered Special Collections materials, you make a U-turn at the top of the stairs and go through to the Katharine Hepburn Reading Room (there’s no door – it’s a continuation of the same room).

There are computer terminals on which you can search the catalogue in the main reading room. Other than the books on the open-access shelves, there are basically two sorts of paper collections you’ll probably want to use:

The Core Collection: This includes unpublished scripts, press books, publicity materials and dockets of press clippings which can be ordered on the day – they’ll call your name at the issue desk located at the point where Cecil B. De Mille meets Katharine Hepburn. Sometimes you might find that press clippings have been microfilmed – generally for the best-known films. The microfilm reading area is in an annexe at the back of the Katharine Hepburn Reading Room. You can print for 25 cents a copy. Like the old BFI Library at Stephen Street, the microfilm and fiche printers can be a bit temperamental.

Scripts might be print copies, though an increasing number have been digitised, which you’ll be able to read on the computer terminals.

Special Collections: There are over a thousand individual collections ranging from studio archives and other industry organisations to personal papers and scrapbooks. These need to be ordered in advance – you can order materials for the next day if you order before 2 pm. Most of the special collections materials are in original copies and you can collect one file at a time from the issue desk – let them know to hold material over if you’re coming back the next day. Some of the more popular records have been microfilmed: e.g. there are several dozen reels of microfilm for the Production Code Administration on the better-known films.

My top archive tip

If you’re researching production histories of individual films from the studio period, and have multiple scripts to go through, I’d suggest looking at the Production Code Administration file first. There’s a PCA file on most films released in the United States (including non-American films) between the early 1930s and the end of the 1960s. This will identify which version of the script (by date) was sent to the censor in advance of production and will list any scenes or lines to which the censor objected (usually including page numbers). This will help you to focus on which parts of the script were changed in response to the censor’s intervention.

Practical stuff

The Margaret Herrick Library is at 333 South La Cienega Boulevard, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, CA 90211, just north of the intersection (that’s junction for us Brits) with West Olympic Boulevard. There’s a public car park next door on La Cienega on the same side of the road (free for the first two hours – not that that’s very useful for researchers).

The library is open weekdays except Wednesdays from 10.00 am until 6 pm (late opening Tuesdays until 8 pm). It is closed on public holidays – check the website for details:

The closest places for refreshment are the Cinema Café on the other side of the car park: it’s a good place for a quick drink and sandwich. I particularly like their range of fruit juices with sparkling spring water, which are just the ticket if you’ve worked up a thirst in the Californian sunshine. If you want a longer lunch, or if you work through the day and want to eat dinner when you leave, then Tutt’ a Post Trattoria at 235 South La Cienega is a friendly neighbourhood Italian restaurant where you might just bump into other film historians. There’s also a variety of cheap eateries heading south into the ‘Little Afghanistan’ district. A little further out the Bombay Palace at 8690 Wilshire is the best Indian restaurant I’ve found in the area: the dishes are spicier than most in North America and the house cocktail is the ‘Bombay Martini’ (with cinnamon and ginger). (I should probably add a disclaimer that I do not own shares in any of these institutions.)

There aren’t many places to stay in the immediate neighbourhood. I usually stay at the Avalon Hotel on West Olympic ( from where it’s about a half-hour’s walk to the library. It sometimes offers ‘three nights for the price of two’ deals out of season and is pretty quiet except when they have a fashion shoot with swim-suited models around the pool. I once spotted Benedict Cumberbatch having breakfast when I was there. There’s a range of eating options on Beverly Drive from takeaway pizza joints to the upmarket Beverly Steak House, while next door the Honor Bar (‘established 2010’) is a safe and welcoming environment for lone travellers wanting to unwind after a day in the archive. I once took a seat at the bar, ordered the Kaffir Lime Gimlet and fell into conversation with the guy sitting on the next stool who turned out to have studied with film historian Richard B. Jewell and we spent the next half hour talking about RKO Radio Pictures.

James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and editor of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

A Day at the Archives… Warner Bros. Archive

Jennifer Voss, De Montfort University

17 April 2018


In the summer of 2017, I embarked on a 12-day archival research trip to the film libraries and studios in Los Angeles, along with a cohort of PhD students and supervisors from the Cinema and Television History (CATH) Research Centre and Drama Research Group at De Montfort University, Leicester. Having developed connections with various libraries and archives in Hollywood (such as the Margaret Herrick Library and Warner Bros. Archives) via email prior to the trip, we were able to discuss our requirements and request our materials well in advance. We were also fortunate enough to be able to arrange some additional activities to enhance our experiences within the archives, such as tours of the archives and vaults, as well as a meet and greet with a number of librarians and archivists working as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

With my PhD thesis addressing actor training processes and women’s experiences working as actresses within the film industry during the transition from silent to sound, I spent my time in LA divided between the Margaret Herrick Library, and the Warner Bros. Archives at the University of Southern California, School of Cinematic Arts. The Margaret Herrick Library reminded me somewhat of the British Library; in terms of the formalities, securities, and hushed reading rooms, as well as a sense of prestige and legacy. The Warner Bros. Archive, however, was a much more unfamiliar research environment, but one I was eager to immerse myself in.

Located in an industrial area of University Park, across the road from the Los Angeles DMV, the Warner Bros. Archive is housed in a large but unassuming, white painted building. There are no visible windows, just a small door at the front, with ‘3716 S. HOPE RESEARCH ANNEX UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA’ printed above it. After being buzzed in via the intercom, my colleague and I were lead through to a set of big double doors with the words ‘USC WARNER BROS ARCHIVES’ stencilled above it (had it not been my colleague’s second day in the archive, I would not have been confident we were in the right place until seeing this sign!). We were then taken through the archive, beyond rows and rows of shelves stacked high with boxes, to a small study area tucked in the back corner of the archive. The Archive Curator, Brett, set me up at one of the 6 or so research desks, and presented me with my single box of requested items.

Prior to the trip, there were some issues accessing the Warner Bros. Archive index, and so there was not a centralised online catalogue or system to search and request. However, this was not a problem as I spoke to Brett via email, and he was quick to offer assistance. I sent him a list of actresses and films I was interested in, as well as the HR information I might find useful, and he sent me a list of potential items to look through and request.

Here are a few examples of some of my exciting finds at the Warner Bros. Archive:

  • Contract files for Dialogue Directors and Dramatic Coaches; detailing the films they were contracted for. Particular highlight: business card/pamphlet for Malvina Dunn, Dramatic Coach, revealing her connection with the Paris Conservatoire.
  • Legal papers and contracts for Colleen Moore from 1928-1928, showing additional clauses for her first three ‘talkies’.
  • Production file for Footlights and Fools (1929); Colleen Moore’s third sound film

On the third day of the trip, the whole group met up at the Warner Bros. Archive, where we were given a tour. The tour began with a brief overview of the history of the archive. Brett explained how the archive was donated by Warner Bros. to the University of Southern California in 1978, and that the archive holds a vast range of Warner Bros. film, television and music material dating between 1918 and 1968. Due to a number of reasons, including the condition of the items, as well as copyright restrictions, the items held in the archive have not been digitised, and are therefore only available to access by researchers on-site. Moving through to the shelved unit situated right next to the study area, we were told that in order to make accessing documents relating the most popular/most frequently requested films easier for both staff and researchers, the archive has ready made-up boxes of records/documents for certain film titles. Brett had set-out one of these boxes for us to look through, to see the sorts of material held in the archive; the film was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) starring Humphrey Bogart. The file included correspondence from the research department file, script/story developments, legal files, set department stills, budget and other financial statements, press releases, wardrobe and make-up files, as well as more general inter-office memos and correspondence. After taking time as a group to move around and look through the documents, Brett took us on a tour of the building to see where the different files are pulled from, in order to make up the boxes for each individual researcher’s requests. It was a unique opportunity to be able explore the cataloguing and curating side of the archive, and we also got to see some incredibly exciting items, including an original animation drawing of Daffy Duck!

The extensive knowledge of the archive curator was invaluable throughout my time in the archive; he was keen to know what was useful and what wasn’t, and he was more than happy to dig out any additional material while I was working on my pre-ordered items. Similarly, the relaxed and informal atmosphere of the study space creates a really calm and comfortable working environment. The ‘thank you’ messages from students and academics alike which completely cover the partition wall is a testament to the great support offered at this fascinating archive.

This blog post has been adapted from my short blog series documenting my 12-day research trip to the film archives and studios in Los Angeles:

Jennifer Voss is a PhD candidate in Drama Studies and Film History at De Montfort University, and is funded by the AHRC in partnership with Midlands 3 Cities. Jennifer’s doctoral research, which uses performance theory to build upon a traditional film studies approach to cinema history, focuses on actresses’ performance of emotion during the transition from silent to sound cinema in Britain and America.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

  • Archives