Researching the History of Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast

Sam Manning, Queen’s University Belfast

23 May 2018

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Background

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

QFT

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.


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One Comment

  1. A terrific piece, Sam, many thanks. A research article on the history of the Queen’s Film Theatre would be a good fit for the HJFRT.

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