Why projectionists will soon be no more.
"Most guys will say the problems started with platters, but I would argue it was xenon bulbs. Before that, it was a reel-to-reel system, and it was labor intensive because you had to change the film every 20 minutes, and you had to change the carbon. Once they were able to get over that hurdle and get a dependable, inexpensive bright white light, they could come up with a system to feed the film forever."
And they did. Platters appeared in the mid-'70s and, suddenly, instead of two projectors showing individual 20-minute reels of film, projectionistswere taking all the individual reels and building them into one monster reel that lay on its side on a spinning platter, and the entire film would feed through a single projector. Films would still have to be built—assembled from individual reels into platters—but with no need for reel changes and a consistent light source, projectionists were no longer needed to run the movies. The unions tried to hold back the inevitable, but chain theaters wanted to get away from expensive union contracts, and the first thing to go were licensing standards.
"Giuliani came in and started to change things to be more favorable to management, and we sensed it was going to be a problem," Rivierzo says. "They wanted to get rid of the projectionist license completely. We fought it at city council, and eventually what they did was water down the test so anyone could pass it."
"Before, you used to have to take a 100-question exam to become a licensed projectionist," Ramos says. "And you had to know electricity, you had to know your currents and your storage and so forth, and you also took a practical exam. But they dumbed it down to a 40-question exam, and the department of consumer affairs took over testing rather than the bureau of gas and electricity. So managers were able to get their license and run the theater, run the box office, run everything, for ten bucks an hour."
As multiplexes put mom-and-pop theaters out of business, the number of movie screens increased while the number of individual theaters decreased. For the companies running chains, movie theaters were machines designed to make money, and the biggest concession they received from the union was the ability to hire fewer projectionists.
"For a 12-screen multiplex, one projectionist will work," Ramos says. "He might get help on 'make and break day,' usually Thursday, when another projectionist comes in for about six hours and helps him build the new films and break down the old ones. But otherwise, it's just one guy. You set the timer to start the show, you set the type of sound system you have for the soundtrack, and you leave it. You walk around to make sure it's running, but with 14 screens, it's impossible to be in all of them at the same time."
To get more out of each projectionist, the chain multiplexes are standardized. Says Rivierzo, "There's automation. There's status boards that'll tell you what's running, what's down, and what has to be threaded. Most multiplexes put all their screens on one floor to make it easier for one projectionist to check them. And some theaters are laid out exactly the same, AMC theaters in particular, you can close your eyes in Chicago or New York and know exactly where you are in the house. Even the way the panels are put in; they use the same equipment."
Ironically, as movie theaters tout their state-of-the-art projection facilities, like Imax and 3-D, they no longer have the staff to ensure that the equipment is maintained. Imax and 3-D require extremely bright light sources, and when the projector bulbs start to fade, the image on the screen dims. Avatar may have cost millions to make, and it may require state-of-the-art equipment to project, but if the $1,000 bulb is old, all those expensive images will look like mud. And with fewer projectionists, there's less quality control.
"Some theaters used to change the bulb with every new show that came in," Ramos says. "But now, you have 14 bulbs, and every bulb is $700 or $800, so you're talking a good chunk. With a bulb, you get 1,500-2,000 hours of life, and there's supposed to be a procedure where you rotate them every 500 hours and make sure they don't burn up. But if I've got to work 14 theaters in a night, and I'm scheduled to come in one hour before opening, how much time do I have to do that s---? And at the end of a 12-hour day, I'm not going to walk through and rotate every bulb."
Besides union labor, the physicalityof films hasalways been expensive. If a movie like Hot Tub Time Machineis going to open on 1,500 screens, that means that 1,500 35mm prints need to be struck, each one weighing approximately 50 pounds. They'll have to be shipped via air and ground to 1,500 different screens across the country, where 1,500 projectionists will have to unpack the five to six reels and build them onto platters. The platters will run for a week or two, then the prints willbe broken down and shipped back to the studio. It's an expensive, labor-intensive system. Digital projection, on the other hand, will see films downloaded remotelyto hard drives in theaters and then beamed onto screens via projectors. And that will be the end of union projectionists.
"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."
Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival and he writes about pop culture on his blog.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.