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.


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

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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:

http://www.oscars.org/margaret-herrick-library/collections/special-collections/special-collections

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: www.oscar.org/library/about

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: http://www.oscars.org/library

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 (http://www.avalon-hotel.com/beverly-hills) 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.

The City Archive: Expect the unexpected

Leen Engelen, LUCA School of Arts and the Institute for Media Studies (KU Leuven, Belgium)

15 December 2017

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For many years, I have been doing media historical research. My preferred research topic is visual culture (film, picture postcards, posters…) in the 1910s and 1920s. I have thus visited many different kinds of archives in several different countries. From the Belgian National Archives in Brussels to small unopened private and company archives, stored in dusty boxes in basements or attics. I would like to write however about my experience in city archives, which I came to know as treasure troves full of unexpected gems.

Of houses, police regulations and movie posters

Being a historian is hardly ever just a job. When I moved house a few years ago, I decided to check on the history of the house (built in the post-World War I era) in the local city archive. I requested the files and went to the reading room to look at the building plans and correspondence between the urban planning department and the architect. While looking at these documents, I dropped my eye on a series of film posters hanging on the wall somewhat hidden behind the registration desk. Upon inquiry, the librarian told me they had a whole bunch of these in the archive and if I cared to take a look at them. They were well-preserved in acid free folders, but were otherwise not inventoried. My interest was raised and I made an appointment with the head archivist. She showed me the whole collection and it turned out they had hundreds of posters in their vaults. A police regulation dating back to 1892 stipulated that one copy of every poster hung at the official billboards throughout the city had to be deposited at the municipal administration to enable verification by the police. The aim was to prevent offensive, illegal or inflammatory posters from provoking public outrage. Next to cinema posters, the collection included political posters, election propaganda, theatre and music posters. Because of the un-inventoried state of the archive, only few researchers had shown interest in this particular collection and virtually no one had looked at the film posters. This unexpected find initiated a collaborative project called ‘Cinema Leuven’ with the Leuven City Archive and the Heritage Department which resulted, two years later, in a book, an exhibition on the city’s cinema history at the local theatre, several student research papers and a completely inventoried and digitized film poster collection accessible online (www.cinemaleuven.be).

Figure 1: source: Leuven City Archive

Figure 2: source: Leuven City Archive

Talk to the archivist

After this experience, my interest in city archives was sparked. A few years later my colleague Roel Vande Winkel and myself embarked on a project that came about thanks to a wakeful and enthusiast archivist at the City Archive in Antwerp (also called Felixarchive because of its location in an old harbour warehouse called ‘Felixpakhuis’). We both had done research at the Felixarchive for cinema related research projects before and one day the archivist pointed my colleague to the archive of the Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp (Koninklijke Maatschappij voor Dierkunde van Antwerpen, KMDA), the society that operated the Antwerp Zoo since 1843. Not exactly an archive media historians like us would usually be interested in. What we found, when we took a closer look, however was quite amazing. A near complete business archive of ‘Cinema Zoologie’, the movie theatre that had been opened at the zoo’s premises in 1915 and remained in service without interruption until  1936. Not only did the archive hold detailed weekly programs (a treasure in itself for those interested in new cinema history), we also found administrative documents and correspondence with distributors, local authorities and musicians. The icing on the cake, were letters from members of the audience, commenting on specific films, on other members’ behaviour (unruly children, passionate youngsters or unfaithful husbands and wives). We were utterly surprised to find this in an archive that was produced by a zoological garden and hadn’t it been for the archivists, we probably wouldn’t have found out about this archive at all. Thanks to this large variety of documents, we have since been able to inventory the complete film and music program of ‘Cinema Zoologie’, from its founding in 1915 until it closure in 1936, and to reconstruct its complete history. From its founding during the German occupation of Antwerp in the First World War (which we published here), throughout the roaring 1920s and the transition to sound, to its decline due to increasing competition in the film exhibition sector in the years preceding the Second World War. We were not the only one to be surprised by the story of Cinema Zoologie. When we approached the Royal Zoological Society (that still operates – among other things – the Antwerp zoological garden today) in 2015, they were unaware of this particular part of the Society’s history. Their interest was sparked by this unusual story and we are currently setting up a Cinema Zoologie exhibition at the zoo’s premises (to be opened in 2018 to celebrate the Garden’s 175th birthday), a book publication and an online platform providing access to the archive and the programming database.

Figure 3: FelixArchief, Antwerp City Archive, Royal Zoological Society Antwerp

Boxes, Chocolate Wraps and Cinema Programs

While working with the Cinema Zoologie archive, the archivists mentioned another collection they had recently started working on: the papers of a man listening to the remarkable name Télésphorus Buyssens (1879-1945), an Antwerp railway administrator with a keen interest in… almost everything. It seems like throughout his life, he kept every piece of paper he could get hold of. This resulted in over 50 boxes filled with chocolate wraps, advertising brochures, bills, envelopes, letters, announcements, flyers, packages, political pamphlets… and film programs. This huge pile of papers (an optimistic archivist called it ‘papierotheek’) includes ephemeral documents that don’t usually make it to archives but that are relevant for researchers in many different fields: from economic historians researching price fluctuations of consumer goods to graphic designers and art historians interested in the design of wraps and packages of everyday products. His letters, many of which were written during the First World War, have been used by the archive for their public history project on the life of ordinary Antwerp citizens during the Great war. The collection of more than 1500 cinema flyers of over 70 different theatres in Belgium (mainly Antwerp) and France (the north), dated between roughly 1908 and 1942, is very valuable for cinema historians. Especially for the first decades of the 20th century this type of ephemeral sources rarely survives in such quantities. So once again, talking to the archivist brought very interesting and unexpected material to our attention. And who knows, the next project.

Figure 4: Felixarchief, Antwerp City Archive, Archive Télésphorus Buyssens


Leen Engelen is a media historian at LUCA School of Arts and the Institute for Media Studies (KU Leuven, Belgium). She is vice-president of IAMHIST.


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.

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