Movie Projectionist, 1/11/2010

Working here is like a bad habit. I want to quit but it’s so comfortable.
Jason Longwell, movie projectionist.
Currently works for Laurelhurst Theater and NW Film Center.
Previously worked for Cinema 21, Clinton Street, and Hollywood Theatre.


I was 19 when I first met a movie projectionist. He was an older man who ran a grant-funded film series and owned a curiosity shop selling rare, foreign film posters and cool artsy stuff. Most days his wife ran the shop and monitored their children while Mr. Whitt waxed poetic about the grandeur of film, camera angles, directorial decisions and Art (with a BIG capital A). Having been raised by artists, I had seen or heard of most of his favorite films and so it was only a matter of time before I became assistant director of The Rialto Film Guild. The title meant I carried keys, counted money and learned projection.

Projecting movies is a bit of an addiction. The job is easy, but specialized. Once you know how to run a projector, you’re one of a club. Sword-feed, reel-to-reel, platter system, lumens, shutter and dowser, scope vs. flat, aperture plates, film gates, intermittent, splicing tape: if you don’t know then it’s all secret code. You learn quick-witted mechanical tricks to keep the film on screen even while the machine may be in complete failure. You also learn that if you open the lamp house while the xenon bulb is lit, you are screwed.

Movie houses are usually gorgeous, resplendent (though not always). You feel proud to hold the keys to an old movie house. You know that you know all the mysteries inside; that you can sit in the green room, or walk through the backstage catacombs, or rap on the colossal boiler hidden deep in the basement and few others will ever have access to those places.

When it’s show time and you close the projection booth door and you hear the thrum of the fans, lamps, power, platters or reel motors engaged and all that energy is held back like a horse pushing on a race track gate, there’s no greater thrill than pushing the buttons or switches that start the film. You watch the leader tape run through the machine and then, quick!, there goes the lamp light on and, click, the dowser opens and, oh crap, the focus needs adjusting and there, there out the port window sits fifty, one hundred, maybe even four hundred or more people enthralled, bored, oblivious, aware, miserable and looking for solace, or giddy on a first date, or whatever, it doesn’t matter, because there, there they are and they wouldn’t see this film at this moment if it weren’t for you threading it up and turning it on and adjusting it to the screen. New feelings, new ideas, new images, buckets of blood, wacky comedy, whatever, you put it there. Or at least you had a hand in it … even if that hand was only that of a machine operator.

If you are looking to work for a movie theater, the surest way to get an interview is to have some projectionist training in your past. Failing that, customer service. Failing that, know someone who works for your targeted theater. Remember, it’s not an art, it’s not a craft and there’s no union unless you’re in The Industry (read: SMPTE, IATSE).

My advice: do not under any circumstances apply to a corporate chain theater. Cineplex Odeon, Regal, etc., will put you at the ticket tearing stand then make you mop the floors in a vest with a name tag and will expect you to smile while you’re at it because a hundred people will be walking by on their way to a movie.

Independent theaters, those owned by a single person or a team, are better than corporate chains because the work schedule is easier and the work-load is significantly less (read: expectations are low in independent theaters) but, honestly, independent theaters are not as cherry as working for a grant-funded project. Movie theater owners have the bottom line in mind. They need profit and to see it they rarely can provide insurance or raises. As a projectionist, I haven’t seen a raise since 1999.

Grant-funded projects can organize special events that draw more patrons and because there is usually a group or board making final decisions on pay and insurance one can generally beg or argue them into recognizing your hard work, good effort and deservedness.

Now, more than ten years later, I still project movies. My title is gone but the duties remain. I make two bucks less per hour than I did at my highest paid projection job (accounting for inflation). Knowing how long I’ve worked as a projectionist, most people think I love movies. Over time, however, a disdain for film has grown inside me; a compounded resentment of my knowledge put to no use whatsoever.

You see, all films are spoiled for projectionists. Movie projectionists see the end scenes and often step in during dramatic, pivotal sequences of each film while checking change-overs, focus, and framing. Only the most rabid film-buff projectionists can enjoy seeing the end of a film ever and anon. Those same film-buff projectionists know the secret joy of being a projectionist. That is, once the movie starts, you have opportunity to step in and watch a particular scene recurrently, studying the lighting, angles, acting, dialog, whatever is of interest. This experience of seeing the same scenes repeated could be educational for a budding film student, photographer or screenplay writer. But the majority of movie projectionists I’ve met are none of these. One or two in the past talked of pursuing an industry-related career but they did not follow through. One or two I know now are pursuing industry-related projects and my dearest wish is to see them succeed because maybe being surrounded by (some might say mindless) entertainment makes a person become unmotivated, or afraid.

Or maybe there is a certain personality type that is attracted to the job. My worst fear is that I am just another loser, like all those characters from movies about people working in movie theaters, video stores, record shops, and that my coworkers, no matter how funny, dear and generous they are as humans, are also losers, and that none of us will ever make enough money to retire comfortably or leave behind any wisdom for generations following us. As the machines we repair become obsolete and movies become further formulaic and the need for movie projectionists recedes due to Netflix and Google-ready television sets, what will remain? The scrappy, chugging, blazingly lit-up 35mm Simplex opto-mechanical devices we projectionists cobble back into working order will rust and our paychecks, which aren’t much to speak of, will vanish.

Thereby in order to ease my mind and enlighten you further on the meaning and future of movie projectionists, I will interview some of Portland’s finest projectionists. For me, being a movie projectionist may not be like it’s depicted in Cinema Paradiso, but for some projectionists it kinda is. Stay tuned. (JMM)

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