During Oscars season back in February, Dr Sam Manning argued that cinema’s doom-mongers should look to the past to consider how theatres have dealt with threats, such as the emergence of television. Little did the cinema historian, who is based at Queen’s University Belfast, know then that cinemas would be forced to temporarily shut their doors in response to a global pandemic.
This led me to consider what my research can tell us about how cinemas have historically responded in times of crisis. A case study of 20th-century Belfast highlights the resilience of cinemas, that have successfully negotiated pandemics and civil conflict to provide entertainment for their patrons at a time when they perhaps needed them most.
I first became interested in Belfast’s cinema history when I started researching interwar cinema-going seven years ago. I focused on the operation of the Midland Picture House, a cinema with a working-class customer base located near the docks of north Belfast. This venue overcame a range of crises, including economic recession, sectarian conflict and the logistics of switching from silent to sound cinema. The Midland also survived several public health scares at a time when cinemas were highlighted as unsanitary venues in the press and by local government.
In February 1929, the Belfast News Letter reported that a ‘severe epidemic of influenza, with its attendant widespread distress… has affected Belfast for several weeks past’. In response, the Northern Ireland Public Health Department wrote to all cinemas outlining the dangers of the spread of influenza. Though cinemas were allowed to remain open, the Belfast Corporation requested that venues should be ‘thoroughly ventilated and sprayed with disinfectant at regular intervals. The entertainment should not be carried on for more than two and a half hours and there should be an interval of not less than 15 minutes between two entertainments’.
The Midland was one of four Belfast cinemas destroyed during the 1941 Blitz. Most other cinemas fared much better and admissions rose sharply as audiences sought escapism and entertainment during the Second World War. My book, Cinemas and Cinema-Going in the United Kingdom: Decades of Decline, 1945–65, uses case studies of Belfast and Sheffield to explore how cinema audiences changed after the war and assesses the response of exhibitors to the post-war slump in attendances.
Though the book was written long before the present crisis, it provides several examples of how cinemas responded to public health concerns. For instance, in October 1957 the Belfast Telegraph reported that a recent influenza epidemic had cut audiences in city by between one third and a half. Though cinemas remained open again, the article claimed that the recent growth of television meant that people preferred to stay at home where there was no chance of infection. Further reports suggested that audiences only returned to their normal levels at the beginning of the following year.
In 2018, I researched the fifty-year history of Queen’s Film Theatre. It was clear that the difficulties of establishing and developing a cultural cinema were heightened by the onset of the Troubles from 1969 onwards. This period of unrest often impacted cinema programming and operations. In 1970, for instance, the cinema’s committee reported that a recent run of poor attendance was ‘largely due to the civic conflict in Belfast’. However, Queen’s Film Theatre fared better than many other venues.
In September 1977, a series of IRA firebomb attacks damaged three Belfast cinemas: the ABC, the New Vic and the Curzon. All these venues displayed resilience and reopened shortly afterwards. The Curzon resumed business in December with a showing of Star Wars. John Gaston, the cinema owner, told the local press that the popularity of the film reminded him ‘of the good old days of the cinema before television’. The Curzon then remained open until 1999 and was the subject of a recent documentary.
In my previous blog, I argued that thinking historically warns against overstatement in light of recent declines in cinema attendance. While the current closure of cinemas is largely unprecedented, I believe that looking back to previous crises offers hope for the future. Audiences and exhibitors have consistently found ways keep to cinemas open in times of crisis and I have no doubt that they can weather the current storm.
Dr Sam Manning teaches at Queen’s University Belfast and is a postdoctoral researcher on the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded European Cinema Audiences project. Previously an AHRC research fellow at Queen’s researching the fifty-year history of Queen’s Film Theatre, he has published articles in Cultural and Social History and Media History. His forthcoming monograph, Cinemas and Cinema-Going in the United Kingdom: Decades of Decline, 1945–65, will be published on 31 March by the University of London Press, as part of the Institute of Historical Research and Royal Historical Society’s New Historical Perspectives series.