Ave Atque Vale: Let’s hear it for skilled projectionists as they pass into history

posted by CSWalczak on December 10, 2010 at 9:55 am

It is probably fair to say that most moviegoers never think too much about film projection (unless something goes wrong during a showing) or about the generations of the skilled technicians that have kept us entertained with little or no recognition. From the earliest days of the movies, getting the show on the screen used to be a craft that required skill and training and incredible adaptability, and in the days of nitrate film, the willingness to work in in a hazardous environment.

Two New York projectionists, Joe Rivierzo and Jose Ramos recently reflected, with anecdotes, on the decline of their profession in a recent fascinating article that appeared at Slate.com by Grady Hendrix. The piece traces the decline of the need for skilled projectionists as changes in technology and other factors are eliminating a position that was once was absolutely essential to a quality cinema experience.

“Digital will eliminate us completely,” Rivierzo says. “All you have to do is load it and play it, and a lot of this stuff can be done off-site. We have theaters now running with 35 percent of the house digital. Once they go over 51 percent running digital, and they run it that way for 90 consecutive days, they can eliminate the presence of a projectionist. Our only saving grace is they can’t manufacture these digital machines fast enough.”

You can read the whole article here in the Slate.

Comments (22)

IanJudge
IanJudge on December 10, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Interesting and sad to say the least. I’d also argue that the continuous consolidation of the country’s largest exhibitors has hastened the demise of the projectionist, as well as eradicated much of the magic of the movies.

However, I’m sure my great projection staff who are with the Local 182 here in Boston would challenge that article’s position that the “Local 306 in New York City, {is} the last uncombined projectionists union in the country” which is certainly not the case.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on December 10, 2010 at 1:34 pm

No but there aren’t many left. when I saw the first plattersystem I knew projectionists,trained men that could fire up carbons,make a change over,solve all kinds of problems in and out of the booth,The days were numbered,so much so, when I got out of the management side of the theatre business i got into IATSE Local 629 and became a stagehand.It wasn’t long before we were taking in the old projectionist Union,Sadly,Most of those men were not able to build shows.And retired.many died within a year or so.

AlAlvarez
AlAlvarez on December 10, 2010 at 2:03 pm

I wonder if Mr. Rivierzo was around when Local 306 was a closed shop and that seriously outdated “test” was designed to keep women, hispanics and African-Americans out of their union. The test had been written by the union and administered by the union who then gave “friendly” applicants and relatives the answers. Wasn’t it in the eighties, when Mr. Rivierzo was running porn, that Local 306 agreed to run VHS tapes at union rates in competition with 35mm theatres? Was Mr. Rivierzo around when Local 306 choked 70mm projection by demanding two and sometimes three projectionists on duty any time a 70MM film was being run?

We can all wax melancholy about an era when white men could keep their well paid union jobs even if they failed to show up for work or ran a cassette player for their pay. As long as they could collect union dues, the industry’s survival was never their concern. Now it is surviving just fine without them.

ron1screen
ron1screen on December 10, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Having started in this business as a projectionist about 33 years ago I can totaly relate to the death of a profession. While I still run 35 mm it isn’t the same and as time goes on all the magic will be lost. Today there arn’t many houses left that have curtains & foot lights. Along with a trained profesional in the booth to make sure everything happens seamlessly. Also most of the audience does not care about showmanship. As long as the movie appears on the screen after all the advertising is finished they are satisfied. Most are to young to remember what it was like to attend a film in a great theatre with good projection. When the house lights dim and the curtain parts magic happens…..

moviebuff82
moviebuff82 on December 10, 2010 at 4:35 pm

I feel sorry for those projectionists at my local AMC in Rockaway who no longer have to put a film reel into a projector now that all of the screens are digital. When shown correctly at a theater like what Clearview does for some of its theatres, the film is sharper and more real than digital projection.

rgsimpson1
rgsimpson1 on December 10, 2010 at 7:55 pm

My grandfather and my father were both projectionists. I worked in an independent theater, the oldest continually operating theater in my state. I had 4 separate booths to manage. I came in on the tail end of the projection era, being hired as one of those employees who are trained everywhere in the theater. Though I used xenon-bulb, platter systems, working as a projectionist did more for my problem solving abilities more than any other experience I’ve ever had. I remember my boss, who’s been in the business for 50 years saying, “Your popcorn can be a little salty, or service might be a little slow, but if that picture is not perfect, if that sound isn’t fantastic, you’ve lost your customer”. I remember having to replace bulbs between shows, do a quick fix on a gate to keep the film running, tearing down and building films. I’ve even helped install new speakers and hung up new screens. I learned customer service, that movie-going should be an experience and it starts at the door. Theaters should be at the right temperature, all audiences should be greeted before the show begins, and the popcorn never more than 4 hours old. It’s sad that other people won’t get this chance.

markp
markp on December 11, 2010 at 1:05 am

I must say reading the article made me sad too. I am now an IA projectionist in my 34th year, and I followed my father who did it for over 50 years. I remember the carbon arcs, curtains, change-overs, all of it. I work today in a 10-plex and a 6-plex, both with platters. Basically nothing more than a film threader. I still love what I do, but know my days are nearing the end. And to Justin, the “kids” who threaded film at your AMC never had to lift a reel, its all on platters, and its companies like AMC, Regal and even Clearview, my former employer who have helped put us “professionals” out to pasture.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on December 11, 2010 at 10:05 am

All great comments.I appreciated all your works.

jojo
jojo on December 11, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Also the whole industry will feel Hollywood’s greed film labs will also go down no more film no more labs needed.Many high skilled jobs lost it is a real shame what has happened to our industry and American culture.

AlAlvarez
AlAlvarez on December 11, 2010 at 7:13 pm

I am not sure what some of you are referring to as Hollywood greed. Every advance made to projectors from sound on film, mylar film stock, cue marks, automatic lens changers, zenon lamps, platters, remote timers, and rewind tables all made the skills to run them less crucial as the pay rates went up to about ten times a theatre manager’s salary

This article isn’t about the demise of a craft. Good technicians will always be needed even for a digital projector. This article is about the demise of a union that became obsolete back in the seventies due to their own devices.

Jon Lidolt
Jon Lidolt on December 12, 2010 at 4:52 pm

I’ve worked in the film business, both in exhibition and production since the late 50’s, I also ran a rep cinema for almost 10 years and remember with horror the problems I had with a few union projectionists. To be fair, we had prints arrive in horrible condition: some had to be cleaned, bad splices remade, cue marks added so that changeovers could be made and even leaders added to the reels so that the film could be threaded. Thank heavens for our regular projectionist. That being said, I also had nights where a relief projectionist would come in drunk, didn’t know how to run the equipment or simply couldn’t be bothered to check the focus. One night the audience of about 400 people started chanting we want our money back – and rightfully so. The masking kept opening and closing, the curtains suddenly closed in the middle of the movie and one changeover was made to a machine without a lens in place. I threw him out and ran the film myself. The union called the next day and threatened me. I told then in no uncertain terms that if something like that happened again, and I had to give refunds to disgruntled patrons, the union would be getting a bill and hearing from my lawyer. Never heard from them again. On the other hand, our regular house projectionist was always on the ball and fortunately loved movies. We were one of the lucky ones.

Nowadays I live about 10 minutes away from an all-digital AMC 24 screen megaplex. I have to admit that I do miss the showmanship: the pre-show music fading away, the dimming of the house lights, the curtains opening, etc. but in a way I don’t really mind because both the IMAX and the 4K digital presentations are flawless.

Simon Overton
Simon Overton on December 12, 2010 at 11:55 pm

And then there is a fabulous portrayal of an aging, die-hard projectionist portrayed by Peter Sellers in the 1957 B&W classic “The Smallest Show on Earth.” I never tire of it!

CSWalczak
CSWalczak on December 13, 2010 at 12:03 am

And, also let us not forget “Cinema Paradiso,” where a projectionist and his relationship to a young boy fascinated by film are at the heart of that wonderful story.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on December 13, 2010 at 2:02 pm

I will have to check out the Peter Sellers Flick.Never seen it,Thanks for the tip,Simon.

JohnRice
JohnRice on December 14, 2010 at 12:07 am

Another movie with an old time carbon arc/changeover projectionist as the hero is appropriately entitled “The Projectionist”. Chuck McCann plays the man up in the booth and his boss (the manager) is Rodney Dangerfield. It’s got a clever opening and closing that anyone who has done that somewhat lonely but rewarding job in an old fashioned theatre (NOT a multiplex!) will appreciate!

As a lad being a projectionist was my dream job! I was one of those audio-visual geeks who ran the 16mm Bell & Howell in the classroom at school and wanted to do the same thing with those big 35mm machines in a movie theatre. I learned the craft (the old fashioned way!) while in the Army, moonlighting part time at our post theatre. After the service I wanted to continue working in my dream job but quickly found out that the union in the big and medium sized cities wasn’t accepting new members (unless possibly your dad or uncle was a member!) and in small towns the non union jobs (if you could even fine one!) paid little more than minimum wage, sometimes just minimum wage and you were lucky if you got one night off a week! So I went to work for the railroad instead, eventually became a locomotive engineer. Probably just as well with theatre closings and automation on the horizon. Working in a platter/xenon multiplex has no appeal to me, sounds about as exciting as loading up a DVD into a DVD player. The couple years I did have in the dual projector/carbon arc booth while in the Army were great though and I look back on that time fondly! Loved those Simplex X-7’s!

JohnRice
JohnRice on December 14, 2010 at 12:07 am

Another movie with an old time carbon arc/changeover projectionist as the hero is appropriately entitled “The Projectionist”. Chuck McCann plays the man up in the booth and his boss (the manager) is Rodney Dangerfield. It’s got a clever opening and closing that anyone who has done that somewhat lonely but rewarding job in an old fashioned theatre (NOT a multiplex!) will appreciate!

As a lad being a projectionist was my dream job! I was one of those audio-visual geeks who ran the 16mm Bell & Howell in the classroom at school and wanted to do the same thing with those big 35mm machines in a movie theatre. I learned the craft (the old fashioned way!) while in the Army, moonlighting part time at our post theatre. After the service I wanted to continue working in my dream job but quickly found out that the union in the big and medium sized cities wasn’t accepting new members (unless possibly your dad or uncle was a member!) and in small towns the non union jobs (if you could even fine one!) paid little more than minimum wage, sometimes just minimum wage and you were lucky if you got one night off a week! So I went to work for the railroad instead, eventually became a locomotive engineer. Probably just as well with theatre closings and automation on the horizon. Working in a platter/xenon multiplex has no appeal to me, sounds about as exciting as loading up a DVD into a DVD player. The couple years I did have in the dual projector/carbon arc booth while in the Army were great though and I look back on that time fondly! Loved those Simplex X-7’s!

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on December 14, 2010 at 11:23 am

I had an old Projectionist friend give me the “PROJECTIONIST” one sheet.I had forgotten about that one.

irishcine
irishcine on December 17, 2010 at 4:14 am

A good projectionist did a really great job in the carbon arc days, and most here took the job seriously.

However, if you want a less flattering cinema version of a projectionist, see “Clash by Night” where the slimy projectionist (Robert Ryan) makes the moves on Barbara Stanwyck. Never the wisest move, but also one of the very few behind the scenes representation of the movie exhibition business.

MPol
MPol on December 18, 2010 at 10:57 pm

The more movies are made into Blu-Ray DVD’s, the closer the day is when movie projectors become obsolete.

William
William on December 20, 2010 at 3:41 pm

TV/Beta/VHS/DVD/Blu-ray/Cable/Satellite have all had an impact on the movie theatres. The studios are the ones who want to make film obsolete. They save on shipping of film prints and making of prints and the storage of prints. With Digital prints it opens up a new world of projectionist, which is more technical. As the chains did years ago with platters & xenon & automation , made more work for the projectionist for less money.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on December 27, 2010 at 9:06 pm

movies to me will always be on Film,William.100% correct.

MPol
MPol on December 31, 2010 at 10:04 am

That may be true, but you know what, William? The studios also take advantage of the fact that so many cities and towns have allowed their movie theatres to fall into disrepair that people don’t want to go to them anymore, which leaves many of these old movie palaces vulnerable to the wrecking ball and to overzealous developers who’re anxious to turn a huge profit through buying up these graceful old theatres and either demolishing them to make way for a parking lot, etc., or to convert them into condominiums, stores, banks, or whatever else suits their fancy.

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