Let there be light
Cinephiles mourned the closure of Dublin’s Light House Cinema in 1996. Now the original owners, Maretta Dillon and Neil Connolly, are re-opening in a stunning, custom-built venue in Smithfield. But with arthouse films now available in several cinemas – so
In the beginning was Light House Cinema, a two-screen venue on Middle Abbey Street in Dublin’s city centre. The tone of the programming was set with its very first presentations on November 11th, 1988, when one screen showed veteran French director Eric Rohmer’s 4 Adventures of Reinette & Mirabelle, while the other presented the work of a precocious rising talent from Spain, Pedro Almodóvar’s The Law Of Desire.
The theatre went on to introduce Irish audiences to such diverse talents as Terence Davies, Ang Lee, Vincent Ward, Patrice Leconte, Jane Campion, Zhang Yimou, Denys Arcand and Julio Medem. One of its most notable successes was Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s debut feature, December Bride.
Side by side with these emerging talents, the cinema presented the work of more established but equally adventurous directors – Peter Greenaway, Spike Lee, Bertrand Tavernier, John Sayles, Jacques Rivette, Derek Jarman and the great Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose magisterial Three Colours trilogy was the unforgettable highlight.
The venue carved a rich, distinctive niche and made an invaluable contribution to the artistic life of the city. When its lease expired in September 1996, the cinema had to close. Neil Connolly and Maretta Dillon, who operated that Light House Cinema, promised that it would return in another place at another time. They had no idea this would take 12 years.
GOING FORWARD: A NEW HOME
ABBEY STREET, 1988
“We had no financial resources,” says Connolly. “We were rather naively looking for a way to build a 21st-century, custom-built new Light House. What drove the possibility of it happening in Smithfield was the planning permission Fusano Properties got for their flagship development, a crucial element in Dublin City Council’s strategic planning. It required Fusano to provide 80,000sq ft of cultural space. We contacted them and everyone liked the idea of Light House Cinema as a potential cultural project that would actually be sustainable.
“We also had to bring more to the table than passion, ambition and confidence. We had to bring money. The first government support came from the Cultural Cine- ma Consortium, the strategic partnership of the Arts Council and the Irish Film Board. It was set up to take on board some of the recommendations in Developing Cultural Cinema in Ireland, a report Maretta and I wrote, which was published by the Arts Council in 2001.
“The original plan was to create regional arthouse screening facilities outside Dublin. The feeling was that Dublin was reasonably well-catered for. We applied for money and were turned down because we were Dublin-based and too close to the city centre, but we went back the next year and we were offered a grant of ¤750,000. It was a significant endorsement of the quality of the project.
“We also needed additional skills, so we invited two key people to join the Light House board as non-executive directors – David Collins, the managing director of Samson Films, and David Kavanagh, the chief executive of the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild.
“The final crucial element in the mix was a grant of ¤1m from the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism. And the deal was struck with Fusano Properties.”
GOING UNDERGROUND: THE DIVINE DUNGEON
“No YMCA jokes now,” quips Maretta Dillon, lending me a hardhat before she and Neil Connolly take me on a guided tour of the new Light House at Smithfield. It’s still a work in progress, with opening night two weeks away, but they are confident it will be ready.
A temporary safety hoarding still obscures the entrance on Market Square. The glass doors open on to a wooden walkway. A wall for posters is on the right, the stainless steel box-office on the left. Further ahead is the cafe/bar, which will serve snacks and tapas and has a wine licence. It stands on the roof of screen three. Opposite are two ticket-collection machines for online bookings.
There are stairways and two lifts to the lower floors that house the auditoria. On the next floor down are screen three (116 red seats; red-panelled wall) and screen four (68 black seats; multi-coloured wall). I test the seats, which are wider than the average cinema, very comfortable, and crucially for those of us who are six feet and taller, with ample leg room. There are two permanent wheelchair spaces in each cinema, and the seats are removable to provide more spaces if necessary. Down another
flight are the larger auditoria – screen one (277 blue seats; blue walls) and screen two (156 seats in attractively mixed colours; grey-panelled walls).
The cinema was designed by DTAArchitects with a wealth of imagination highly appropriate for a venue showcasing a visual medium. Says architect Colin Mackay: “The organisation and distribution of screens will allow patrons to walk over, under and around the forms, affording analternative and dramatic cinema experience.”
GOING DIGITAL ... OR NOT
Digital cinema is the future, it is widely agreed, but is not part of the immediate future of Light House Cinema. “We don’t have it because we can’t afford it,” says Connolly. “Digital Cinema Limited is a company whose business plan involves fitting every commercial cinema in Ireland with this equipment at little or no cost to the exhibitor. That’s driven by the Hollywood studios, which will save considerable amounts of money by not having to strike thousands of 35mm prints and ship them. Because arthouse cinemas won’t be playing Hollywood movies very much, if at all in some cases, there is no return on this to Digital Cinema Limited and they won’t be giving the equipment to us.
“We haven’t been sitting on our hands about this. I think the Arts Council and the Irish Film Board have been cautious about responding to a situation that has been evolving through different digital systems, but now there are global standards and specifications.
“To install digital projectors in all four screens would cost around ¤300,000. There’s no point of having it in just one because you would have no flexibility to move films between screens.”
Connolly points out that the UK Film Council has funded the installation of digital systems in 280 screens, arthouses and multiplexes. “Their strategy was driven by the belief that reducing the cost of distributing moving pictures would actually broaden distribution, which makes sense.” Already some arthouse movies are available exclusively in digital, which rules out Irish cinema screenings for them. Their number can only grow.
GOING CLUB: ELITIST? NOUS?
“We want to avoid any sense of elitism, and to have an open, accessible cinema,” says Dillon. “We will have a Friends of Light House scheme, but it’s not a requirement for anyone buying a ticket. The scheme will offer discounted ticket prices, invitations to previews and our bi-monthly brochure in the post.” The annual fee is ¤25.
Dillon and Connolly welcome the commendable policy introduced by the Irish film censor, whereby films screening on six screens or less at any one time are charged substantially reduced certification fees. In the days of the former Light House, the same fee could apply to a foreign-language film playing one screen as a Hollywood blockbuster on mass release.
GOING INTO COMPETITION: A NEW CINEMATIC LANDSCAPE
The landscape for arthouse cinema in Dublin has changed utterly in the past 12 years. The original Light House enjoyed exclusivity on just about every release, but the new cinema will be competing for movies – and audiences – not just with the Screen and the IFI, but with venues that mix mainstream and arthouse, chiefly Cineworld, but also Movies@Dundrum and IMC Dún Laoghaire.
“We want to programme films that reflect a certain taste, a certain style,” says Dillon. “We will present films to the high standard that audiences and film-makers deserve. We hope people will be attracted to the venue. It’s an audience-focused cinema and we want them to be comfortable, to get value for money and to have a good experience when they come here.
“It will be possible to see some of the films in other cinemas, but many have had very short runs simply because there hasn’t been enough screen space for arthouse films. We have a policy of giving films open-ended runs. We will be programming week to week, and if a film is doing well, we can hold it over.”
Connolly adds: “We hope that, as we grow, our audience will grow with us. We will have a curatorial approach and if we choose to show a film, there are specific reasons for showing it. The four screens will allow for enormous flexibility in terms of programming, delivering a greater choice and diversity of films to invigorate the cultural cinema landscape in Ireland.”
GOING OUT OF STYLE: IS ARTHOUSE DEAD?
The coincidence of two great masters of world cinema, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, dying within 24 hours of each other last summer prompted some observers to proclaim the death of arthouse cinema. “We have to be optimistic,” Dillon says.
“When people die after creating such a body of work, it’s easy for people to say, ‘Oh, it’s all over’. But there are always other film-makers coming along and you have to find and discover them.”
GOING THERE: A BRIDGE TOO FAR?
“Smithfield is 15 minutes walk from the city centre,” Dillon points out. “It’s on a Luas line. We have ample underground parking adjoining the cinema. The city is spreading all the time, right down to Heuston Station and up to the estuary. And Smithfield is full of potential. It has a lot going for it.”