I found a disturbing post that made the front page of Reddit, about one couples very bad experience at a movie theatre. In short, the picture was out of frame so they couldn't read the subtitles (Pan's Labyrinth), there was a hair in the gate, and it got twenty minutes into the feature with no one fixing it. Inexcusable. When they tried to get their money back, they had to deal with a very unaccommodating manager... they then went home, downloaded the film, and watched it in the comfort of their livingroom.

Anyway, I felt that this was a textbook case of what is happening with movie theatres and movie piracy everywhere, and I actually got a little panicked when I thought that it could have been at my theatre that this happened. I emailed the guy and he confirmed that it actually happened in Ontario somewhere. He emailed me again with the following:

Dear Heidi,

Here's a question for you that my wife and I were asking ourselves after our experience on the weekend: what does a modern projectionist actually do? Is training a matter of apprenticeship, college or employer-provided training?

What happens to projectionists come the widespread adoption of digitally-delivered cinema?

Love, Cheeseburger Brown

I started thinking and formulating a reply, which took me a long time to write.
Anyway, I thought I'd share it with you, because it's what I do, and you probobly don't really know what a projectionist does. I hope you enjoy!

Hello Cheeseburger,

Sorry this took so long. I'm glad you asked. I'll tell it all. It might be a bit long winded, but I enjoy telling it, and I don't often get to. I hope this answers your questions. ...probably more than you ever wanted to know.... :)

I've been a projectionist for TWO years now, and that's TOO long. But dang, I gots to pay off my student loans!
I have a diploma from the Vancouver FIlm School (Film Production) and, while my film training no doubt helped me to get the job, anyone with the right motivation and work ethic can do it.

I make $9.00 an hour (minimum wage in BC is $8.00), and that's AFTER I asked for a raise. While new booth folk get a $.50 raise after being a projectionist for three months, raises are unheard of at Cineplex. (I should clairify that we were a Viacom Paramount, but were bought, and are now a Cineplex Galaxy.... but I learned a few days ago that Scotia Bank bought us, and they are changing theatres everywhere to "Scotia Bank Theatres". I died a little inside when I heard that.) But I digress.

Projectionists are trained within the company. We are trained by the projectionists that came before us. There is usually a huge decay of knowledge when a projectionist is trained, mainly because, at my theatre, we get THREE shifts to teach them everything they need to know. It's not enough time. Mostly new people learn things as they go, from mistakes they make. I know things no manager knows. Very few of them know what it takes to run the booth, or what we actually do up there, what it's like to be alone, all day, with loud machines everywhere you go. Even the managers that were once projectionists forget, as if the office somehow erases their memories of it.

I run nine screens simultaneously. I'm alone for my usual eight hour shift. I am fortunate enough to have a boss that values the maintenance of our projectors (everyone else just wants you to BUY BUY BUY our grossly unhealthy popcorn, snacks, and sugar water), and the morning shift starts a full two hours before the theatre opens to preform maintenance.

So: I get in around 10 am, get the days show time schedule and the elevator key that lets me access the booth, and I head upstairs. I read our Booth Book, which tells me what's been going on (but since I'm there five days a week, very little goes on that I don't know about), and get to work on maintenance. Maintenance is cleaning; lots of q-tips, rubbing alcohol, compressed air, windex, WD-40, and attention to detail ensures that a projector is clean, that all the parts are functioning properly, and that the picture is getting to the screen perfectly (lenses and port-glass projection booth windows are cleaned). I do two or three machines a day, so that each machine is done once a week. We have more rigorous maintenance types that happen every three months (oil changes, coolant changes and the like).

After maintenance, I thread. This involves getting the film in place to run the film. We have a platter system which feeds the film in one continuous piece through the projector and back onto another platter. Thus, a film cannot be rewound or started again. Once it goes, it GOES, unless I use my l337 skills to carefully unthread and get it going again, but that's only really possible in the first few minutes. Threading is automatic when you've been doing it for long enough. I have muscle memory for it. I can thread in one minute, five seconds (though this more than doubles if I do it with my eyes shut). It's what most of the training centres around, because it's what you have to know right away, and you have to do it perfectly twenty times a day. Threading is the hardest thing to learn. It's where most things go wrong. Everyone scratches a print in their time in the booth. Mine was Kingdom of Heaven. I almost cried. I felt like writing to Sir Riddley Scott and apologizing. Prints are EXPENSIVE and we sure get a talking to if we scratch one. ...They don't always replace a scratched print, even when I recommend that they do. Who wants to pay twelve bucks to see a bunch of vertical black lines all over James Bond? Not me. But people do, and it pains me to have to show them an inferior print just because my managers won't get a new one.

The projectionists motto is "On time, in frame, in focus" (to which I have added "incognito"), and our job is to be there when the film starts, focus it, make sure it's in frame, make sure there's no hairs in the gate (removing them if there is), focus it after the adverts and trailers, and focus it once more in the middle of the film. The heat of the bulb can actually effect the focus, which is why it is so important to have someone there to keep it in check. Cinemas that have less than twelve screens are not supposed to have an employee who is solely a projectionist. A manger threads, or one of the concession people. Our nine screens are lucky to have someone up there all the time. We have one of the best and cleanest booths in the country, according to many people that see many a booth.

Thursdays are out of the ordinary, and far more hectic. that's when all the new films arrive, in six or seven reels, and I have to put them together. Also, old advertisements must be removed from prints, and new ones put on. Same goes for trailers. So much splicing. It takes so little time to say, but hours and hours to do.

We have to move prints from theatre to theatre. Prints are heavy. Everyone drops one. ONE. Though, I never have, and I mention it as frequently as possible. ;) They are really hard to get back together when dropped. A print is around a mile of film.

We clean the projectors not just in the morning, but quickly in between each and every show. Also, at the end of the night they get a once over.

We look in on the audience from our "eye in the sky" vantage point and catch the ones trying to record our films, or the little buggers with the laser pointers, or the guys with their feet up the on the back of your chair. When the lights dim I get the pleasure of seeing a wave of cell phone screens come aglow as their owners turn them off.

We program a system that automatically starts the film for us. We tell it what format (Flat, or Scope) and the time, and it starts it for us. Not many theaters have this system (called "CineQ") but it sure makes things easier. A sensor on the projector reads little strips of foil I put at certain places on the print to dim the lights, shut off the lights, and bring them back up again. It's my friend. We must always have our radio on us at all times so this system can communicate with us. All day we hear "SHOW NINE- STARTED" (of course we'd be right beside show nine when this announcement comes on) and "SHOW FIVE- BUNG-BING-BONG" to let us know it's out of trailers and into the actual feature (at which point we go there and focus it). "SHOW TWO END IN- MINUTES" tells us the credits have started, and "SHOW SEVEN- END" ...obvious.

I think it's not so much a matter of when digital cinema takes over, but rather how many theatres will be left when the change happens. Theatre attendance is down down down, and our theatre is like some sort of white elephant, loosing loosing loosing money. Yet there is talk of one of our screens going digital. Well, I am of two minds about this. On one hand, I can hardly ignore the flecks of dust flickering by as I watch a movie (even though we use 'cleaning rollers' to take it off), the little scratches, the not quite right framing... "Bring on the advancement!" I say. Superior sound! Unflawed picture quality! I get quite upset when people tell me "Oh, you're a projectionist, eh? What do you do then, push play on the DVD player?" NO! NO YOU MORONS! WE ARE NOT DIGITAL! I HAD TO TAPE THAT DAMN THING TOGETHER WITH MY OWN TWO HANDS! Sorry. People just don't know at all what it's like. I know all our machines. I know that number four is temperamental with it's platters, and that number nine is so well behaved no one notices that it's bulbs last twice as long as other projectors. It's so novel to have actual film. It's real. You can feel it, hold it up to the light and SEE what will appear on screen. I feel privileged to have worked with it. Yes, digital will take my job. Let it. I'm done anyway.

...But I will still bore my grandkids with "Back in the day, when you used to go to a movie theatre to see a film, I projected this heavy 35 millimeter film through these noisy machines" stories. And I will smile on our way to the holodeck and wonder what else is just around the corner.

-Heidi

Many comments and more information/interesting stories can be found here: http://nesdroc.livejournal.com/123421.html

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