I'm proud I flew the flag for cinema in Belfast says former QFT boss Mike Open

50 years in business, Belfast's QFT has kept the flame of independent cinema burning bright in the city throughout the Troubles and beyond. Its longest-serving manager Mike Open, back in town for its recent birthday celebrations, spoke to Noel McAdam

Michael Open, former director of Queen’s Film Theatre (QFT). Picture by Mal McCann
Noel McAdam

MIKE Open still holds the record for the longest consecutive run of full houses at a cinema in Belfast. Or claims to.

The film was Cal – the movie of Bernard MacLaverty's landmark novel – the year was 1984 and the run was for 42 screenings at the Queens' Film Theatre (QFT).

Open was its manager and travelled to the Cannes Film Festival to secure the deal to show Cal with then rising producer David Puttnam – as one of its stars, Helen Mirren, took a Best Actress award.

"I buttonholed Puttnam after he gave a press conference at which he said Cal would be screened in the Republic but he was not sure about Northern Ireland," Open recalls.

The storyline of an IRA man who falls in love with the widow of the then RUC officer he has helped to kill was controversial, to say the least. But Open was convinced the QFT was the place to show it and was vindicated by the sold-out run, which also involved an urgent trip back from Cork to Belfast when Warner Brothers bosses were intimating the movie should go to the city's ABC multiplex.

"I had to leave my family waiting to go on holiday and drive back to Belfast, and Puttnam said he would stick to our arrangement but it would define our future relationship – and it worked out well."

Yet only a year earlier the QFT had been on the brink of closure, and not for the first time.

Open's focus was always on showing good films – but he also had to make a profit.

Now 71, the man who was born in England but spent 35 years managing the QFT was back in Belfast last week to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

But even the Cal coup was not the pinnacle of Open's remarkable career as he helped transform the cinema from a makeshift lecture-theatre format to the plush "new and whizzo", as he puts it, place it is today.

His peak he says was "easily" the year-long programme he devised to mark the Centenary of Cinema in 1996, with a total of 250 films – a different movie each day – over most of a year, with a break for the summer.

"I was and am very proud of that," he said. "We started with the silents and went up to modern day, and every decade was represented. Some critics have said it was the best Centenary commemoration in Europe."

It was in October 1968 – just as the cauldron which would become the Troubles was beginning to bubble – that the curtains went up on Queen's University Belfast's initiative to have its own regional cinema.

It was the brainchild of Michael Emmerson, who was originally from Stratford, who worked with the British Film Institute which was also involved in developing more 35mm cinemas outside London.

"The BFI said a good idea was to get someone who had been in commercial cinema with a certain level of professionalism." That turned out to be a Mr Andrew Douglas Jones, but he only remained in post for six months and said Open was "much too inexperienced" to take over.

"He was wrong – or maybe he was right – but I got the job. Basically it was a mutually reliant relationship. I came to regard the QFT as my offspring, a child.

"People who were coming to my cinema were really coming to my house. And at the time they had to go up an alleyway to the entrance, which was unconventional. It was a real cine club, but run professionally."

Open, who was born in Sevenoaks in Kent, left in 1974 to take up a post with the Arts Council in Newcastle Upon Tyne but was back in Belfast, and at the helm of the QFT by October of 1977.

He had already weathered one crisis when, in 1973, Queen's said it could not cover the £3,000 deficit accrued over the previous three years. QFT closed for several months until a refinancing deal, achieved, Open insists mainly by Belfast Festival impresario Michael Barnes, emerged.

"That was the lowest point, which we drifted unknowingly into. But I think I became quite resilient as a result. I would become aware quite quickly when there were problems," he says.

"But there was also a crisis in 1983. We just couldn't find films which were sufficiently good which were also sufficiently popular. And then came Cal."

That put QFT on the map and it became the launchpad for a long line of major Irish movies, including My Left Foot which, with Cal, has been part of the 50th birthday showings.

So why, after 35 years and aged just 57, did Open decide it was The End?

"I really realised my work was done. I knew there was going to be increased bureaucracy."

His father, Kenneth, had also died, not long after his retirement.

Open took himself off to France and settled in the small town of Crezieres, in the department of Deux-Sevres – 80 miles inland from La Rochelle – where he still lives.

"What I am proudest of is that I flew the flag for cinema in Belfast, and of the films themselves," he said.

His favourite film is Terence Malick's The Tree of Life, which he has watched in cinema and on DVD more than 20 times, but admits that on the smaller screen he prefers the John Wayne / Robert Mitchum western El Dorado and his favourite director is Charles Chaplin.

And he keeps his hand in. He recently wrote to Puttnam suggesting a European distribution of classic films...

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