Why projectionists will soon be no more.
The image of technology replacing humans used to be that of a robot arm replacing union guys on automobile production lines, but the auto unions have largely survived intact. It's projectionist unions that have been hit hardest, and these days technology and a concerted effort on the part of theater chains to eliminate union labor have resulted in the death of projection as a career.
"We had a guy call the other day looking for extra work because his daughter was diagnosed with M.S.," Rivierzo says. "He had left and opened a plumbing business and he just wanted to pick up a couple of shifts somewhere. And I said, 'Joe, there are no shifts somewhere,' and he couldn't believe it. Years ago, you could do that. A guy could come in the office and say, 'I just bought a house, and I need to get the down payment together, so can you give me a couple of days in some porno house?' And there were porno houses everywhere. We don't do that anymore."
"You're probably going to have isolated pockets—Imax, screening rooms in private homes—stuff like that. But how many guys can you have? Fifty? Twenty? We used to have over a thousand members, and there were third-generation projectionists in the union. There won't be a fourth generation or a fifth. We have a membership that's getting older, and they've been well-paid for many years, but limited in their abilities to what they've done in the projection booth. Now that guy has to go out and find a new job. It's sad. It really is."
With projectionists gone, another part of our lives will lose the human touch. During the Solidarity strikes in Poland in the early '80s, Rivierzo was working at a mom-and-pop theater and received a print for the night's show that smelled like vinegar. He began searching the reels of the innocuous Hollywood feature and found that a chunk of nitrate film stock had been spliced into middle of the film. Nitrate is an incredibly dangerous early film stock that is so flammable it will burn underwater. It is so volatile that playing it requires not only fireproof projection booths but special projectors equipped with multiple, built-in fire extinguishers. Projectionists are trained to treat it like the deadly explosive that it is, and Rivierzo, knowing it could catch the theater on fire, refused to play it.
First the manager begged and then he threatened, but Rivierzo wouldn't budge. Finally, the theater's owner showed up and promised Rivierzo that he would assume all responsibility if anything happened, but he insisted that the film be screened. Reluctantly, Rivierzo agreed, and he carefully threaded up the flammable stock. That night, the cinema hosted a private show for the owner and a crowd of Polish community leaders. The nitrate footage Rivierzo screened was some of the first film smuggled out of Poland, shot by film students on antiquated equipment, that showed police breaking up the Solidarity strikes with bullets. It was the first proof that the crackdown on the Solidarity movement was worse than anyone was being told, and that night's screening was designed to raise money from Polish expats for the cause.
The Starus NC2500S DLP is the world's brightest digital movie projector. One day it will be standard issue in many movie theaters and it can do a lot of things very well. But one thing it won't do is what Rivierzo did that night. It will be a very good projector, but it will never be a projectionist.
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.