Movie theaters are again open for business, and that has me thinking about my late friend Jack, one of great movie projectionists of his day.
Cinemas are open again, and the early signs are promising. One of the biggest theater chains, Cineworld, has reported the best box office takings since theaters were forced to close some 15 months ago. Results from the first weekend audiences were allowed back were “beyond expectations,” according to Cineworld, thanks to movies like Godzilla v. Kong and the Peter Rabbit sequel, with Cruella and a Quiet Place follow-up just round the corner.
Godzilla v. Kong is especially noteworthy because it’s already been released online. The fact that audiences are willing to pay to see it in the theater bodes well for the future of cinema-going. Popcorn, nachos, hot dogs and gallons of soda pop are flying off concession counters again.
This is a big deal because Cineworld alone lost a reported $3 billion USD in the year 2020, when numbers cratered some 80% from the previous year, pre-pandemic.
My late friend Jack would have been happy to see this. He was a projectionist, a guy who devoted his entire working career to showing movies on the big screen from the tiny, often cramped confines of the projection booth. He was outgoing, larger-than-life and outspoken. He saw movies in a different way from you and me. He would see the same movie hundreds of times, and developed strong opinions over the years about what worked and what didn’t work. He would watch audiences as well as the movie, and if audiences were disappointed or made to feel angry at being let down, he felt it as keenly as any filmmaker. He was obsessive about detail, and nothing irked him more than sloppy projection and ratty sound.
His bosses over the years often didn’t care for him. If he complained that the sound in their theaters was underwhelming, or the projectors (he would be rotated around different theaters within the chain, a full-time employee living the life of a freelancer) needed a new bulb, theater owners saw him as a troublemaker, burdening them with what they saw as unnecessary expenses. He cared only about the customer experience, though. In his own way he loved movies, and he wanted to make sure the paying moviegoer got the best experience possible. He was a one-of-a-kind.
He was full of stories.
Old-school projection booths were built to be fireproof, because in the early days of cinema 35mm film prints were made on nitrate, aka “gun cotton,” and was extremely flammable. Some projection booths were even made with steel shutters designed to come down in the case of a fire, to keep the flames and toxic fumes from escaping from the booth. Never mind the projectionist trapped inside!
At the time, movie projectionists were required to have a license from the fire department. Movie projectionist was said to be one of the most dangerous occupations one could have.
Then came “safety film” — the clue is in the name — and projectionists, and theater patrons, no longer had to worry about the film catching fire and exploding.
The dangers changed, though. One of Jack’s friends, a fellow projectionist, had a film break once in the middle of a critical scene. He had trouble putting it back together again, and irate movie patrons tried to storm the projection booth in protest. Because the booth was built to withstand a fire, the projectionist was able to lock himself inside until police arrived.
Jack often took the midnight shift — midnight movies were a regular ritual during the golden age of moviegoing — because he needed the money and because, deep down, he craved the excitement. Midnight audiences were a different breed. They were movie lovers, true, but they tended to be wired, hopped up on adrenaline — and other substances — and demanded the perfect movie experience. Jack had a temper, but he was also a natural born peacemaker. He had a way of deescalating a situation, but then losing it afterwards, when he was alone with his thoughts and I would join him for an early morning chinwag, before his long commute home, just before the sun came up.
He was meticulous in his work habits, and he had to be. Projection booths were not just fireproof; they were soundproof, because projectors tended to be noisy and the projectionist needed to know what was going on on the screen. The projectionist could hear the soundtrack, but only barely. Occasionally, if a movie was in the middle of a reel, Jack would quietly go into the theater while the movie was playing, and check the sound, and the picture, from the audience’s point of view. If the sound was lousy, he would tell the theater manager, and the manager would scowl at him. If the manager didn’t do anything about the lousy sound, he would contact head office, and head office would complain to the manger about being hassled by a lowly projectionist, As I say, there were times when his bosses didn’t care much for him.
He had a good run. He worked long past regular retirement age, and I remember him telling me one day that digital projection — on video no less — was the future of projection. It would take over from the old days of movie film. No more nitrate, no more films breaking in the middle of a reel, no more irate movie patrons banging on the door. His bosses scoffed at the very idea of video projection — I must confess, I did too — but, lo, that’s what happened.
In the end, at the very end, he was done in by brain cancer. It was not a great way to go, but he kept his memories right up to the end, and I have my memories of him to this day.
Movies are back, this awful Covid-19 pandemic hopefully behind us, Jack would have been happy at that. He purely loved movies.