Monday, March 23, 2009


As digital projection systems slowly infultrate neighborhood movie theatres, it's worth noting that old-style mechanical systems have been pretty reliable for the last 100 years. That's a big reason why they're still around. 3 years ago when I worked with AMC, there was a digital system in San Francisco that broke down about once every 2 days. Maybe once every 10th showing.

That's a 10% failure rate. That's unacceptable.

I have been in enough movie theatres to be there when the film has broken, in the middle, rather than at the beginning (which strongly suggests user error and that it never got started correctly). I always presumed it had something to do with the shape in which the films came in, but having worked in theatres, I now know that even in the middle, it's more often the fault of what the projectionist did - or didn't - do that's at the bottom of it.

Of course there is no projectionist. Actual trained union-certified projectionists nowadays are a pleasant anachronism, and sure as hell aren't in your local multiplex. The platters installed hold the entire film on one horizontal reel and have allowed one candy girl to run 12 or 16 films at a time, pushing a button and walking away to the next projector. That's why if it's out of focus it stays out of focus. She's over in house 10, or downstairs putting hot dogs on the roller.

The theatres got rid of the projectionists in the '70s. Film prints get irreparably ruined about twice a year, and cost the chain $2000- $3000 or so each. The savings for one union projectionist was $45,000 annually. Do the math.

The key variable in that above equation is the word "irreparably." More of that in a second. Also hidden in those savings are the amount of bad will created when a film breaks down and stays broken. If you had an expert up in the booth, the celluloid wrap around the gears and electronic brain would be discovered early and un-done in a minute and the show would go on. As it is, if the noon show of "The Da Vinci Code" goes haywire, you just hand them passes and direct them down the hall to the 1:10 show.

It's showing on 4 screens, and the built-in redundancy lessens the short-term risk.

I remember a guy a couple years back when I worked in theatres who came back with one of those passes and instead went to "Lady In The Water." His anger at this misguided decision was mitigated by the fact that this broke half-way through as well, and he was relieved of the latest M. Night tomfoolery (until "The Happening" of course - more due next year) to go for "The Break-Up" the following week.

That dumped 3/4th of the way through as well, and I directed him to the free-pass line where he would collect another admission ticket that allowed him to see "Miami Vice" the following week.

"Vice" didn't break (at least, I didn't see him the time that it did) (it only seems like it with that cold opening) but he had managed to see at least 5 hours of bad Hollywood cinema on one ticket price, 4 parking fees, and an inordinate amount of bother and anxiety.

That's what going to the movies are about for him now. And I'm not sure he will be so easy to get back once he discovers Netflix.

People respond differently depending upon the movie. If they're enjoying it they'll patiently sit and wait, counting the minutes as the projectionist resplices or rethreads, polite but anxious. But if they've been hating the entire experience ("Crooklyn" comes to mind) the audience will revel in the opportunity to demand, nigh - insist - on their money back; NO they don't want to wait, NO they don't want a free pass... unless it's good for something else too; and when does "Crooklyn" leave? I'll be back one day after that.

When a film breaks or freezes, the frame in the gate melts and burns from the heat of the lamp, creating a spectacular 20-foot mandela onscreen. It's only a frame or 2 and you splice that bit out to put it right. But when the film wraps around the platter "brain" you have to cut through inches of stacked celluloid, wound around the mechanical feeder in the middle (the brain) and then get it feeding back in order.

I once cut chunks out of a print of "Snakes On A Plane" and threw them on the ground trying to free the film from a particularly nasty tangle of machine knotting. I then haphazardly spliced the pieces back together, and the mish-mash of intercutting seemed to go with whatever the hell was happening at that time, in or out of order. No one at least ever mentioned an apparent avant-garde editing strategy during that one portion of the film.

I'm guessing all the pieces were right side up.

These brain wraps tend to reach critical mass late in the films; after they've been slowly wrapping themselves tigher and tighter for an hour, working themselves into a tight ball of acetate plastic around the brain, until the film finally stresses and breaks at the 3rd-act mark, just as the hero has begun to enter the villian's lair. By that time, there's 4 inches of film wrapped around the inner roller-set of the platter, and when it stops it means it. Someone's going to be untangling celluloid for the rest of their shift.

I never saw the last half hour of "The Italian Job" - I presume they got away with the money (or perhaps not - there's a sequel coming). Maybe the next time they'll get it right. But only if the projectionist does.


Anonymous said...

Great story. Are people so trained not to ask questions they'll sit through ANYTHING called art?

Roger L. said...

Assuming you consider "Snakes" art, they trust the filmmakers more than their own best impression.

Makes you wonder how much all that worrying over making it "perfect" matters.

Thanks for reading,