A Queen’s University lecture room which was turned into a rudimentary cinema in 1968 remains a vital outlet for homegrown films and unique movies 50 years on.
As a QUB student, Michael Emmerson founded the Queen’s Festival and later became its director. He is credited with establishing Queen’s Film Theatre in 1968 along with Michael Barnes, a lecturer at the university.
Mr Emmerson said: “I was aware of the regional film theatres springing up around England and thought that we might do something similar in Belfast. We had already established the precedent of using lecture theatres for purposes other than lectures in the festival, so it was a short step to envisage turning a lecture theatre into a cinema.
“The university administration was very supportive and with the help of the newly established ‘Film Theatre Subcommittee’ under the ever-resourceful guidance of Michael Barnes, we managed to find the funding to purchase a pair of second hand projectors and a screen. Lo and behold, QFT was born.
“The truth is the hard work of establishing and growing QFT owes much more to generations of loyal staff, Michael Barnes and long-time manager Mike Open than to someone who just had a good idea.”
Mr Barnes, a lecturer at Queen’s who went on to direct Belfast Festival and Grand Opera House, said: “The problems of setting up a film theatre were enormous, but somehow we were both totally convinced it could be done.
“The university authorities were admirably quick to give permission in principle, were willing that a lecture room could be converted as long as it could still be used for lectures, and found a tiny amount of money to make available.
“Within hours, Mike rang me to say he’d found this unusual new lecture room in University Square Mews – we went to see it, and knew we need look no further. Astonishingly, QFT actually opened in October 1968 – only about four months after the idea was born. Even more astonishing, the cost of making a lecture room into a film theatre came to less than £4,000 in total.”
Over the past 50 years QFT has welcomed a range of big name directors including David Lynch, Alan Parker, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach.
Sir Kenneth Branagh recalls: “I remember nervously standing at the back of the QFT as we showed one of the first public screenings of my film-directing debut, Henry V (in 1989). Since then I have been lucky enough to show many of my films in the city and I have always eagerly anticipated the critical response of audiences here.”
Bearing the name Queen’s, the film theatre is sometimes mistaken as a venue solely for the university’s students.
Joan Parsons, Head of QFT, said: “QFT is a department of Queen’s University, and obviously our relationship with Queen’s students is very important to us, but our relationship with audiences is why we’re here and the students are a section of our audience, but not the majority.
“It is hard to break down that pre-conception that we’re a cinema for Queen’s students because we’re based on campus and part of the wider university, but it’s really important to me that we are accessible to everybody in all of Northern Ireland – students, older people, young families, young professionals.”
She added: “The cinema itself has come a long way since a converted lecture hall with a second hand projector. It’s been great to have been on board to oversee the latest refurbishment.”
QFT is Northern Ireland’s only licenced cinema and in recent years it was registered as a wedding venue.
Ms Parsons said: “We’ve had a wedding licence for a couple of years – some people who were former staff have got married here, other people who had their first date here. It’s quite a chilled out wedding venue because you can all just watch a film or a home movie you’ve made for the occasion.”
In terms of the importance of QFT she said: “It’s absolutely vital to have an alternative film venue here in Belfast. The entire of Northern Ireland is not poor when it comes to multiplex cinemas, but there are very few doing anything outside of the ordinary.
“The two screens at QFT are absolutely flying the flag for specialised cinema – foreign language films, documentaries, older films. We’re trying to present the wealth out there in terms of film.
“It’s not about ownership of films. If the bigger cinemas are encouraged to pick up on an independent film or a genre of film that we’re showing, that’s great. For example it’s great to see a lot more foreign language films in cinemas now.”
She commented: “People don’t tend to travel that far to go to the cinema. Most cinemas pull their audience from fairly close by. QFT manages to reach a bit further because it’s so unique.
“Northern Irish film and Irish film always does really well here. It’s great for the industry for a whole if there’s a strong domestic marketplace for homegrown film.”
Of the rich cinematic history of Belfast, she said: “Belfast was probably one of the best served cities for very, very local neighbourhood cinemas, but they are sadly gone really.
“That model is very hard to maintain, impossible almost. The whole cinema experience is so different – it’s about multiple screens, parking, concessions.”
To mark its 50th birthday, QFT will host a range of events including brand new films and old classics.
It will also show off its newly refurbished cinema, completed after a £350,000 investment.
The month-long celebrations, funded by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund and the British Film Institute, will also see over 30 special events take place including in-depth Q&As with Mark Kermode, Jim Sheridan and the Derry Girls cast.
QFT50 will kick off on Friday, October 5 with the opening of a special exhibition that will showcase a range of artefacts, photographs and memorabilia from the past 50 years, as well as screen a preview of new film ‘First Man’ starring Ryan Gosling.
On October 14, QFT will screen Bloodyminded – the first ever interactive live feature film broadcast online and at cinemas around the UK and on October 16 QFT will have a themed birthday celebration with a screening of ‘Viva Maria!’ followed by a David Holmes DJ set.
On October 23 episodes of ‘Derry Girls’ will be shown with cast and crew in the QFT and on October 31 the closing night gala will see a screening of Steve McQueen film ‘Widows’.