Tom Lawes, director of The Last Projectionist and owner of The Electric Cinema in Birmingham, took some time to talk with FilmOnTrial on the loss of the projectionist, and the rise of digital cinema.
When you were making The Last Projectionist, was there any hope – even the slightest – that it might help spur interest in ‘real’ film like 35mm?
Ah, no – that was not the aim. I mean, the film started because it was really the history of this cinema (The Electric) and I’d always wanted to do something about projectionists as well, so I kind of segue-wayed the two things together, fused these two ideas, and obviously the timing and opportunity to do this was at a crossroads in projection with the projectionists losing their jobs, so although the film covers that and it does talk about the shame of the loss of that skill. From my personal point of view, and actually from the majority of the projectionists is that everybody could see that Digital is the way forward. Overall, it’s a better format for the cinema, and for the customer.
Last year you had the last showing on your final 35mm projector, is that right?
Well, yes – our last kind of regular showing.
So you still show specialist screenings sometimes?
Yeah, occasionally we do that and we do it ocassionally for educational events. Sometimes we have cult films, for example.
With most of the projectionists’ workforce now disappeared in the UK, especially for the larger cinema chains, for instance Odeon and Vue, do you find the cinema-going experience is affected? Especially in regards to multiplexes. Do you notice an absence?
Er, yes. We don’t have a dedicated projectionist (at the Electric) as such, but we still have someone on duty who is in charge of starting and stopping a film, and checking to see whether it’s ok. But their role is more varied because they’ll be doing other things – in addition to that, they’ll be serving customers, and box office, etc. In years gone by, all you had was projection and they didn’t do anything else. So we’ve got somebody checking it, and it’s clear with the multiplex that is not the case. I visit multiplexes regularly, and it’s quite common that the projector is set up incorrectly, and because they don’t have a dedicated projectionist or someone looking after it, quite often you go see the film and it turns out that they haven’t even noticed that the aspect ratio is wrong or some other problem. They’ve tried to automate the process, basically.
Do you think it’s been successful at The Electric? The conversion to Digital?
Oh, yes. It’s made an enormous difference. One of the key advantages for Digital here has been versatility. The advantages are two-fold; it’s allowed us to be more flexible in terms of what we’re showing in multiple rooms, because we can get one ‘print’ of the film and ingest it onto servers in both rooms – we just need transfer it from one server to the other. It just means that we can move the film which is very straightforward and easy to do. For instance, we showed Bond on two screens at once. The distributors themselves are more flexible than they used to be because it’s costing them less money. We’re not part of any kind of virtual print fund scheme, so we don’t charge the distributors a fee for using our projectors – so, it means that we can turn around and go, ‘okay, we do want a big film for a week, or we might not want to show it at all for the next week, or just one show a day’. And so the distributors are more flexible than they used to be. Back in the days of 35mm they were very strict – if you took a film on release date, you had to show it for a minimum of two weeks, three screenings a day – there were a lot of conditions attached.
So you can keep a lot of films on stand-by?
You can do that too. So if you’ve got a film that’s a hit, we might think, ‘well, we’d like to bring that back’. We don’t have to then send the film off, pay a courier to bring it back again because we can keep films on the server for longer. Disc space is an issue, but if there’s someone we really think we might play again, we’ll keep it on the server for a while, and then all they have to do is send us a new ‘key’ – and that’s just a little email that unlocks the film and we can play it again.
Do you think with the advent of digital technology, including the advent of Blu-Ray and the introduction of 3D and High Frame Rate – The Hobbit, for instance is coming out in HFR – do you think 35mm, 70mm, any ‘real’ film will become a complete thing of the past? Or do you think there is a more specialist future for it?
One of the key advantages for Digital here has been versatility. The advantages are two-fold; it’s allowed us to be more flexible in terms of what we’re showing in multiple rooms, because we can get one ‘print’ of the film and ingest it onto servers in both rooms – we just need transfer it from one server to the other. It just means that we can move the film which is very straightforward and easy to do. For instance, we showed Bond on two screens at once. The distributors themselves are more flexible than they used to be because it’s costing them less money. We’re not part of any kind of virtual print fund scheme, so we don’t charge the distributors a fee for using our projectors – so, it means that we can turn around and go, ‘okay, we do want a big film for a week, or we might not want to show it at all for the next week, or just one show a day’. And so the distributors are more flexible than they used to be. Back in the days of 35mm they were very strict – if you took a film on release date, you had to show it for a minimum of two weeks, three screenings a day – there were a lot of conditions attached.
In a few month’s time, there’ll be no more prints.
So Easter is literally the last time we’ll see a 35mm print distributed.
Yep, there’ll be no more prints. There’s no point manufacturing them because everybody will have gone digital by then .
So I guess that’s the point of no return, in a way.
True. But you know, it’s just technology moving on.
In regards to Steven Spielberg and Tarantino like you’ve mentioned, they only shoot on film. You shot The Last Projectionist digitally, is that right?
Yes, that’s correct.
Was that out of lack of 35mm resources, or – from what I can tell – you were just embracing the new technology?
It was done for economic reasons, as much as anything else. It was a self-funded film and probably only cost about ten to fifteen-thousand pounds to make or something, so shooting on 35mm would’ve put it into the hundreds and thousands – just for the film stock. So it wasn’t practical to shoot it on 35mm – 35mm would have looked a lot better. We shot it on DSLR – so we shot it on a format that’s not as good as 35mm. If I could have shot it on 35mm and money wasn’t an issue, and practicality wasn’t an issue, and a big crew, then I would’ve preferred to shoot it on 35mm than DSLR. However, we now use RED Cameras, and you asked me ‘do you want to shoot it on RED or 35?’, I would choose RED. The look is very close to 35mm, and the cameras are smaller, they run for longer, and it’s a lot quicker – post-production is a lot simpler.
Going back to the profession of the projectionist, in your own opinion, would the cinema industry’s decision to do away with them be different if we weren’t in a recession?
I don’t think the recession’s got anything to do with it whatsoever. The multiplexes have had the idea since the 1980s. It’s all about consolidation of cost; everything is about consolidating cost. So when you have multiplexes – big companies with hundreds of sites – if they can shave two pence off the cost of a bag of popcorn, then that adds up to a lot of money across the whole chain. So if you can automate the process and ditch the projectionists across a lot of cinemas, you’re saving yourself a heap of money. The more money that you can save, the more you can bring your prices down, the more competitive you can be in the marketplace. And that’s Capitalism. So it’s got nothing to do with the Recession, it just happens to have happened at the same time. And for people who’ve lost their jobs, that’s a double whammy really.
So it’s just pure financial reasons?
Oh, yeah. It’s about streamlining and being competitive. We are competitive in our own way, even though we’re only a little cinema, there are other ways that we remain nimble and competitive compared to a big multiplex. We have a cinema where we’re not feeding a big management chain above us – so you’ve got a way of competing there. Whereas if you were the Odeon, there’s a whole load of people who work in their Head Office, and with all those overheads of the people working at Odeon Head Office, so all the money that goes upstream – the individual cinemas won’t actually see back. So in that way, that’s when a large company can become competitive. It’s also worth noting that the cinema business, you don’t pay – we’re not paying a higher percentage for the product. So we don’t pay any more for what we sell at the bar, and we certainly don’t pay any more for the films than the multiplex. The percentage of the box office that we’re paid isn’t any greater. So if you wanted to create an analogy with the supermarket industry, the supermarket – it’s all about consolidation again and cost, because they buy from their suppliers very cheaply, and tack on that cost saving to their customers. And that’s forced a lot of smaller corner shops out of business because they can’t compete on price – but that doesn’t affect the cinema, which is why I think that the boutique cinema, little independent cinemas, are okay. They’re having a renaissance, they’re doing alright. Because the market conditions aren’t the same as a supermarket.
Is that one of the reasons why you did up The Electric in 2004?
No. I knew absolutely nothing about what I just told you before I bought the building [laughs]. It was bought on a prayer. It was bought on the fact that because the building was in a terrible state, I got it cheaply, and I subsidized the cinema for the first two years out of my other business – mixing sound for film and writing music for film and TV.
You have a background in that.
Yeah, that’s right – I could feel that the cinema was going to be successful. Because it was so different – if The Electric was going to be different to any other cinema in the area, if you’re unique and you work hard, your business will become successful – it’s absolutely as simple as that. As long as you are different, and you can see that the market is there, because I could see by the way people reacted when they came and the praise we got – so in the end, I almost lost completely my original business, by spending all my time running the cinema and getting it to standard.