Interview: Limerick’s New Digital Cinema and Media Training Hub

| January 23, 2012 | Comments (0)

For the last two years there has been rumours floating around the independent film community in Limerick that we were going our own Filmbase or Filmcentre. No one seemed to know when or where it would happen or who was going to run it. So you can imagine when I heard that it was to be run by the City of Limerick VEC I decided to find out the details. So I got an interview with the two main players in the project Dave Burns and Paul Patton (Head of the City of Limerick VEC).

Interview with Professor Dave Burns, former member of the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems in the University of Limerick and one of the main collaborators on this project with City of Limerick VEC. He has been actively campaigning for a digital cinema for Limerick since 2008.

How did you become involved in this project?

Basically, I was angry one night at the Belltable (Arts Centre’s film club) where there was a programme of shorts going on. It was delayed for an hour and I ended up watching the football. When I came back and it was cold and smelly. I wondered why am I sitting here and I walked out. I said to Declan McLoughlin, who was on the door ‘this isn’t good enough’. He said write to them. At the same time I began to realise that the money being put into Limerick for Cultural Cinema was just not going to happen. This was four years ago. So I started researching what had happened, why it happened, why there was no cinema here? It was just at the time when digital projection was coming in and I went and looked at a little cinema in Kent, first called the Kino. It was a ninety-one seated place. I asked myself, why can’t we have that here for example? What had killed the old one screen cinemas was lugging around the rolls of film, staffing and it became expensive to run. So, I said to myself is a small cinema now viable. So round about August I went to talk to the City Manager about it. He was very negative towards me and I realise now why. It’s because he gets nuts coming into see him every week. Since we got serious about it he’s been very supportive. I then took the idea to the University to try and get them to convert a lecture theatre into a cinema, so the lecture theatre would now become very high spec. This would have become much more suitable for conferences, etc. The plan was to offer to rent it as a cinema at night and at the weekends. That progressed quite far. Our original estimate was about €300,000 to do the conversion. It turned out to be just over €400,000. They couldn’t make a decision on it. Eventually they pulled the plug at the €400,000. I couldn’t believe it! It was all about getting paid back for the money given. I was offering to pay rental of €24,000 or something for it. This would take 15 years to pay it back. The asset to the campus and to the local community would have been huge. Just at the time that had collapsed, Paul Patton got the new post of the acting-CEO of the Limerick City VEC. He was going through old correspondence and found an email from a guy from the university about the Royal Cinema (Upper Cecil Street, Limerick. It is an iconic old cinema once called The Limerick Anthenaeum Hall (c. 1856). It was where famous Limerick actor Richard Harris used to sneak in and watch films, as a child. It has been an institute of Arts education, lecture theatre, meeting place for sports clubs, musical theatre and a cinema). So Paul contacted this guy. I also met the same guy on the same day. Joachim talked to me and we were talking about a place in the city centre for the cinema. So I went into see Paul and we’ve been working on it for now for two years.

What will be the aim of the project? What are you hoping to achieve?
There are two main aims. One we want to emulate the Galway Film Centre. I think they are a wonderful example of how a small organisation running on a very tight budget can generate so much interest and commitment and development. Two, we also want to run a successful cinema. It will show mainstream films as well as foreign films as well as art-house films, local films and films that are made locally. It has to be a success as a cinema, as we will to use the profits from that to run a film centre along the lines of the Galway Film Centre.

So will this project be an extension of the VEC with VEC staff and run by the media department of the Limerick College of Further Education? Or will it be like the Galway Film Centre where, even though, they are attached to the college they are an independent entity with course facilitators from the film industry?

The latter is the way I would see it myself. The way Paul (CEO of the Limerick City VEC) and I have formulated it between ourselves, in a very informal way, is that we’ll set up a company to run the cafe, the cinema and the training. The VEC, which is always short of let’s say classrooms, will actually rent rooms from this company. We’ll probably, though I’m not sure at this stage, hope to pay a rent to the VEC for the whole facility. This will hopefully be an independent entity which will regenerate the money back into the community and filmmaking projects.

We hope to rent out filmmaking equipment as well and provide a forum for people to show their work, give lectures and so on.

This is something that is very much lacking in Limerick at the moment. Up until now people have to go to Galway or Cork to get equipment and it can seriously cut into a film shoot, not including the cost. So what stage is the project at now?

The architects have been appointed and have come up with preliminary sketches. They have talked to the city planners. The planners have agreed that it is okay to raise the roof so we will get four screens in. Two by 150, one by 70 and another one called a studio space. That one probably won’t have full-blown digital projection it might just have blue-ray and fold away seating. This can be moved back for rehearsal, dance practice, lecture or whatever space. In fact bands could practice there. The digital lounge will be on the ground floor and a cafe. This floor will also have a kitchen, a bar, the box office and a confectionary stand all coming in the entrance way. People can also get meals on the first floor. There will be steps or a lift up to there. This will be where the entrances to the cinemas will be. There will be quiet space on the third floor for people to have work space, to have meetings and surf the net. There will also be office space up there. We are expecting Fresh Film Festival to perhaps take an office up there. We are in talks with them about it. They are very impressive people.

So what is the timetable now?
We have enough money to do stage one with the architects which will almost bring us to the submission for the planning permission. Then, basically we need another €100,000 to proceed to the next step. There is no sign, as yet, of that anywhere. Up to now we have had three tranches of funding and they have all turned up exactly when we’ve needed them. So we could be lucky but as yet I don’t know where we will find this €100,000.

Dave then  introduced me to Paul Patton CEO of Limerick City VEC, Dave’s partner in this enterprise.

Paul: Limerick City VEC’s main function is education and we would envision that this kind of place would encourage, primary school children, secondary school kids, school-leavers et cetera, to gain skills that might open up new opportunities in a different industry. It would give them the basic skills they need. We know this industry has been identified recently in a government report as an industry with growth potential. In Limerick we need to be looking at this kind of thing. We need to emulate counties like Dublin and Galway with their great film festivals.

Dave: What we want to bring to schools is not just education in filmmaking but education in film. Kind of like what they do in the IFI. With a lecture after the kids have seen the film and information packs.

Paul: We hope that it would complement the regeneration of the city centre. The city has been crying out for an injection of investment. There used to be a number of cinemas in the city centre but now there is none, so I strongly believe that this project would be one of the catalysts for regeneration of the city centre. The location, the Royal Cinema, has a long and distinguished history as a centre for arts within the city. The only thing holding this project up is funding. Two feasibility studies (one local and one done by a company in the UK) have shown that it is a runner. This is viewed as a regeneration project. There is also potential for expansion as there is an unoccupied building at the other side of the VEC building which is sandwiched in the middle. It is a former social welfare office. This project is to be a hub for Media Arts in the city.

We have the backing of the Department that covers Arts now, as we have spoken to Minister Jim Deegan and his officials. They are very much aware of the project. The only problem for them is that the Arts budget has been very much reduced. They already have projects that are in the pipeline that need to be covered. They have however funded fifty percent of the feasibility study and they wouldn’t do that if they didn’t see this as a viable project! Limerick City council fully support it but can’t financially. We will have to wait and see where the next funding will come from.

This project holds exciting prospects for the future of film in the Mid-West. Hopefully the people with money will see that too. Watch this space.

Eleanor McSherry

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