Why projectionists will soon be no more.
More people die in a movie theater than you would think. "I was at a theater and the manager came up to the booth and said there'd been four shows that day and this guy had sat through three of them. I went downstairs, sat down next to him, and sure enough, he was dead," says Joe Rivierzo, a projectionist. "I called the paramedics and told them that the man is dead, there's no question about that, and I'm going to bring the house lights up just a little and please just carry him out of the theater. So they did. No one really noticed; they just thought he was having a bad day. The show kept playing."
Rivierzo has been a projectionist for 30 years. His father was a projectionist. His grandfather was a projectionist. Between them, they've seen it all. "In the '60s there was a screening of Frankenstein. Projectionist dies right in the middle of the movie. They call one projectionist after another, saying, 'This guy's died. Can you finish the show?' and none of them want to do it. Finally they reach my father, and they don't tell him anything; they just say the guy can't finish his shift, can you fill in? My father goes up, and the guy is lying there on the floor of the booth. He knows this guy, and he has to keep stepping over his body to do the changes while they wait for the coroner to arrive. He's up there, alone in the booth, playing a horror movie and stepping over his good friend's body."
And where there's death, there's sex. Jose Ramos has been the projectionist at the Anthology Film Archives since the '90s, but his career started back in the '80s in New York City's porno houses. "I remember one time I had a break in the film," he says. "I forgot where I was and turned on the lights like I was in a normal theater. You could hear everyone screaming, because the porno houses were just about backdoor sex. At the Roxy, I used to have to do the music and the lights for the strip show and the live sex acts. It was wild times. The strippers would change clothes in my booth to get away from the tricks, and you'd get to know each other. We're all just people, regardless of our chosen profession."
But these days, stripping is thriving while projectionists have fallen on hard times. In an age when studios claim that box-office salvation will be found in new projection technology like Imax and 3-D, projectionists themselves are facing complete and total annihilation.
Rivierzo is an executive board member of Local 306 in New York City, the last uncombined projectionists union in the country. At the height of its power in the '40s and '50s, it had 3,000 members. These days, it's down to 400, and that number's dropping fast, which makes no sense because currently there are more theater screens in the United States than at any other point in history.
But nowhere is technology eliminating the need for human labor faster than in motion-picture projection. From the birth of cinema until the 1960s, the system was the same: Every projection booth had two reel-to-reel projectors with carbon arc light sources. The movie would start playing on one machine, and the projectionist's job was to watch for the changeover cues: usually a small circle or an X in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
"You see those cues all your life," Ramos says. "Some people know what they are, and some people don't. There's two of them: There's the machine cue, and you already have your reel threaded up to seven or eight on the countdown reel, and when you see the first one, you hit the switch and the second machine starts to run, and when you see the second cue, you step on the pedal or flip a switch, and this projector shuts down and that one starts up. If you do it smooth, it's seamless; if you do it wrong, it f---s up."
Getting a lamp that was bright enough to throw a projected image onto a screen hundreds of feet away was a huge problem, and the first solution was the carbon arc. Two carbon electrodes are brought together, they touch and are then pulled apart, creating a brightly burning arc. The strong, steady light would bounce off a reflector and toward the lens.
"You had to keep them a certain distance from each other," Ramos says. "There were mechanisms in there that moved the rods, but they weren't always reliable because a lot of these machines were really old. The bigger theaters had thicker arcs, and the smaller ones had smaller arcs, and we would monitor it. All the theaters had two lines drawn on the ceiling because the reflection would hit the ceiling, too, and when you saw that the light was going off the ceiling lines, you would have to adjust it."
Then, in the late '60s, projectors started switching to xenon bulbs. These were expensive, sometimes running up to $1,000 each, but they provided a strong, steady light source that didn't need to be monitored. And for Rivierzo, this was the beginning of the end.
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.