Where did all the projectionists go?

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A quiet revolution is going on behind your back at the cinema. Old-style projectors are making way for spanking new hard drives. But is this a good or a bad thing? David Jenkins clambers over the back row to find out.

Illustration: Adam Ellison

Think of a film projectionist, and what comes to mind? Is it an image of a dumpy, bearded bloke in an old waistcoat and beret? Does he share a grubby attic space with tatty old film posters? Does he wind a battered 35mm print on to a spool and monitor his work through a shaft of light which cuts through the dust of the auditorium? Think of Philippe Noiret in ‘Cinema Paradiso’, Buster Keaton in ‘Sherlock Jr’, or Robert Prosky in ‘Last Action Hero’… Well, in reality, the image you should have in mind is of a giant USB stick.

Why? Because projectionists as we imagine them are on the verge of extinction. This is down to big changes in the world of exhibition: hulking hard drives – to which films are sent digitally – are being installed in cinemas, while tactile, scratchy, buzzing celluloid film prints are being tossed on the scrapheap.

We spoke to a spokesperson for Odeon who explains that the chain is in the middle of replacing 35mm projectors at all its 110 sites across the country with digital projectors. At the Cineworld chain, a projectionist tells us that the switch-over is just as rapid. Phil Clapp of the Cinema Exhibitors’ Association explains the difference: ‘While a 35mm projector is a mechanical device with moving parts, a digital projector – aside from the lamp – is very much a piece of IT. Projectionists who have been able to strip down and reassemble a 35mm projector with their eyes closed are suddenly being presented with a box and an on-off switch.’

The roots of the digital takeover can be traced back to 2005, when 240 digital projectors were given to UK cinemas on the back of the UK Film Council’s Digital Screen Network initiative. The hope was that on the back of that initial flurry, the training wheels could come off and cinemas would embrace the digital revolution. They didn’t. The momentum of change was slow. Now, though, the digital boom has finally happened, partly fuelled by the spiralling number of 3D titles, which can’t be projected on old equipment.

David Hancock of industry website Screen Digest illustrates the speed of change. ‘In 2009 there were 650 digital screens in the UK. By 2010, there were 1,400, with 1,080 of them enabled for 3D. In 2010, 416 films were released wholly or partly on digital prints in the UK, which is 80 per cent of all releases. This is by far the highest number in the world. It compares to 20 per cent in France and 35 per cent in the Netherlands.’

This means that gone are the days when a tired old print starts to show up scratches and other signs of wear and tear. Audiences will barely notice the difference: every film will look like new. The real effect on film-going may be more long-term as cinemas take advantage of cheaper technology to offer a more flexible, varied programme or find it difficult to show certain films, mostly archive titles, which have not been transferred to digital.

Buster Keaton as a hapless projectionist in 'Sherlock jr' (1924) Buster Keaton as a hapless projectionist in 'Sherlock jr' (1924)

It’s easy to romanticise the end of 35mm projection. According to Clapp, a lot of veteran projectionists have taken this revolution as a cue to retire. Celluloid purists remain, but hard economics is their biggest stumbling block. Digitisation calls for fewer people in the projection box, so cinemas can switch to digital and reduce their overheads. Yet Clapp is still optimistic that a role exists for projectionists in a post-35mm world.

‘We still need people to make sure films are projected correctly, at the right time and on the right screen. But they will take on other roles. Digital allows cinemas to host one-off events like screenings of live opera or theatre, and these events have their own demands on staff.’

Sam Clements is a young projectionist at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton who, by necessity, has recently begun dividing his time between projecting and working for the cinema’s marketing team. He is observing from the inside as the craft of 35mm projection fades away. ‘I learned how to lace and maintain a 35mm projector on the job over about ten weeks,’ he says. ‘Now, because we’re getting fewer and fewer prints through the door, the chance to pass on this knowledge is disappearing.’

Others, such as Peter Howden, projectionist and programmer for the Rio in Dalston, take a less nostalgic view. ‘I don’t think 35mm projection was ever an art. It’s more a routine job with an opportunity to produce an okay presentation standard. There’s no personal signature and only the occasional bell and whistle. The same, I think, applies to digital presentation.’

Of course, making a film and seeing it projected in 35mm is sometimes a creative consideration. As recently as 2009, Quentin Tarantino asked that ‘Inglourious Basterds’ only be projected from ‘real’ prints. ‘That was a tough one,’ says Clements. ‘It’s about three hours long, so that’s nine reels. I think that’s the point where the fun gets sucked out of it. And the prints are heavy: moving it from one screen to another was never a one-man job.’

That said, Clements worries that cinemas will lose sight of their heritage. ‘From working at the Ritzy I’ve had the chance to make up some amazing old films. Recently I had original prints of Tarkovsky’s “Mirror” and “Stalker”. They had frames missing where something may have gone wrong during playback, or a projectionist had nabbed a still for their collection. For me, it’s amazing to hold the print and think that it was being screened before I was born. These films have their own history, and that’s something you can never replicate with digital.’

The rise of digital may mean that cinemas can offer a more varied programme without having to worry about the costs of calling in prints when a film may only have a limited audience or run. And with no need for a big projection booth, the space needed to build a cinema will shrink. Edward Fletcher of film distribution company Soda Pictures speculates on the future. ‘I predict that in the next few years there will be an increase in smaller, high street cinemas that will show a good mix of mainstream and indie films.’

But don’t expect to bump into many staff, adds Fletcher. ‘In place of the projectionist, you could have one person in a business park in Stevenage sat in front of a bank of screens. That person could programme their entire group of cinemas by doing some drag-and-drops on a laptop.’

So, the next time you’re in a cinema, take a look over your shoulder at that small window and bright column of light shining out of it. If you see someone in there, give them a wave. They may not be around for much longer.


Users say

2 comments
virender kumar
virender kumar

im virender kumar dt cinemas warking projectionist

Tony Gallimore
Tony Gallimore

Like digitally mastered music became, movie presentations will become too perfect, leaving their humanness laying in the gutter just like all that perfect music has. No warmth, no audience involvement... just a glare on a white wall somewhere... yes, perfect glare, but glare just the same. Movies are on a downward spiral and even stale popcorn cannot save them.