What’s Wrong With This Picture?: The disappearance of the projectionist, and why we still need him

Earlier this week, I had my final shift as a projectionist. Quite a while ago, the chain of cinemas I work at have decided that throughout 2012, they would make redundant all their projectionists to make way for a new autonomous system based on digital projectors. This widespread advent of digital technology in film has ushered in a similar fate for other large cinema chains too, depleting their reserves of projectionists – a profession which has literally been around since the very first films were shown in the very first picture houses. That pesky locomotive in Train Pulling into a Station needed someone to steer it, right?

But while those busy bees are almost an extinct race, the onset of technology is, understandably, an inevitable one; what’s no longer needed, is dropped. It’s something that ripples through every business in history, and sometimes particular parties feel it harder than others. This is usually when said parties, of hard-working people, become obsolete themselves. However, that human touch they provide in whichever profession they are a part of is what separates genuine quality from mere efficiency. It’s a kick in the teeth, then, that money speaks louder than reason; these people who love their job are subject to downsizing, and more and more personality from their line of work is drained away. Digital projection is supposed to eliminate human error, yet that’s not the case. In my experience, computer-based projection (which is a bit more complex than a simple relay system than you’d get with 35mm) requires a hell of a lot more babysitting than its trusty counterpart. When you put on a performance for an audience who pay through the nose for their tickets, logic and general common sense dictates that said performance should require supervision. In this new model, adopted by more and more chains, there is no supervision… even though Digital is still in its relatively early stages, and needs supervision… but Digital is installed so that supervision is not needed. Yeah, my head hurts too.

35mm prints, by nature of their size and general fiddly-ness, always needed an operator. But the logic behind installing Digital everywhere is not to ‘upgrade’ the cinema experience; no, the only motive behind large corporate cinema chains is money. Just like it is for any other corporation – that’s the reason they exist. Not to progress artistic enjoyment, but to amortize all they can to squeeze more dollar from you, the cinema-going (and in many cases, cinema-loving) public. Digital cinema represents this. Now, I’m all for revolution in the world of film – in 2050, I can’t imagine anyone truthfully saying they’d prefer watching a 35mm print over a digital copy. It’s not like listening to vinyl over CDs, where the sound quality and texture of the older technology is actually preferable. And If you’ve gotten used to watching Blu-Rays, DVDs will feel a little rubbish too. That’s the nature of things – but that’s kind of a different argument all in itself. The point here is that digital projectors, which run by themselves (or at least should do), simply break down more than analogue projectors ever did.

There’s a reason why projectionists have been around for over a hundred years. It’s so they can fix something if it goes wrong. It’s so the paying audience is treated to optimum presentation, and the working cinema employees can rely on their auditoriums to function like they should. My fellow (ex)projectionists genuinely love their job, and it’s their care and eye for detail that kept our cinema running as well as it possibly could have done, not only during the 35mm era but during the dawn of digital, too. Unlike them, I’ve only been a projectionist for just over a year, but it’s been an absolute privilege and by far the best job I’ve ever had. I never had the pleasure of working with 35mm; I’m a bastard of the digital revolution. Nonetheless, the same care, thought and joy of the job have always been present with me. It’ll be sad not to hear calls for Projection to investigate or fix something – the joy of the stint was keeping it all running smoothly, and it’s scary to imagine someone not being up there to keep it like that. This is a nationwide situation, and ever spreading. Perhaps I’m bias, or being too sensational about the whole thing. But if you love films as much as I do, you want to see them put on properly. When the lights finally go out in the projection booth for good, something not just pragmatic from the cinema industry, but the love and human touch that goes with it, will be lost. It saddens me to know that eventually, albeit in a few arthouse theatres dotted around the country, no one will feel the excitement in putting a movie on for a sold-out screen for other people who take part in that forever odd shared experience we call Cinema.

Alas, like I’ve said, just like any other business – of which cinema is not exempt – things constantly move forward. Increasingly improved technology necessitates the obsolescence of things that, from a pragmatic point of view, are unneeded. There’s no denying that particular reality. But just like Paul Newman’s title character from Cool Hand Luke says, ‘calling it your job don’t make it right, Boss’. As he hits the lights in the booth for the final time, I think the last projectionist standing could see something in those words.

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About GaryGreenScreen

Freelance film critic.


One thought on “What’s Wrong With This Picture?: The disappearance of the projectionist, and why we still need him

  1. I used to be a cinema projectionist. I could see the writing on the wall coming from a distance and left the industry 5 years ago. I miss the old-school 35mm, and it was a job I truly loved. I feel your pain. 😦

    Posted by kineticlifestyle | October 14, 2012, 8:10 pm

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Gary Green: Freelance film critic.

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