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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

GO­ING BACK:

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.”

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