Film projectionists in the digital age

Earlier this year, I wrote about how the advent of sound ended the careers of many silent film musicians who’d long been employed in Toronto movie houses. I expand on the sometimes turbulent history of labour relations in exhibition by looking at modern-day film projectionists and how they’re coping with the digital age. Originally published by The Globe & Mail in November, 2011.

The lobby of the 97-year-old Fox Theatre in the Beaches is decorated with classic film posters. Its former coat check vestibule is now a box office. With the exception of sugar-free syrups and organic juices at the concession stand, it appears much as it did in the 1950s.

The Fox Theatre (2236 Queen St. East) in October, 2010.

But upstairs in the projection booth, owners Andy Willick and Daniel Demois recently converted to 2K digital cinema projection, a format that is fast becoming an industry standard even among the smaller independent and repertory theatres in Toronto, such as the Bloor and Royal cinemas. “With the big chains going digital, the availability of 35-millimetre prints is diminishing and will be even more difficult for an independent cinema to obtain,” said Mr. Demois.

The conversion and requisite upgrades cost the Fox $100,000. The owners of the east-end showplace are now wondering if the new system’s automation will still require full-time projectionists.

With the new format, films no longer arrive in heavy cans but as an encrypted hard drive that gets uploaded to the cinema’s server. “You can build a playlist, set up your whole week. It can be done by a projectionist in one sitting,” added Mr. Demois.

Eric Kruka, a spokesperson for IATSE Local 58, which represents projectionists, says that although negotiations with the Fox are still under way, they will continue to have a presence at the Queen Street East theatre. “It’ll be a matter of mutually deciding on where our skills are needed.”

“We’re not trying to eliminate them from the theatre,” said Mr. Willick. A 2008 merger with the stage-craft union has allowed its 30 members to learn new skills and work in live theatre. “Their skills as stage-hand workers could be applied in a movie theatre setting to do maintenance on equipment and fix masking.”

Sitting in the dimly-lit projection booth overlooking the multiplex that is TIFF Bell Lightbox – also equipped with digital cinema but showcasing many 35-mm and 70-mm prints – Mr. Kruka said that fewer jobs have been available since he completed his apprenticeship 12 years ago. “We took a pretty big hit when the big chains gave us the boot in the late 1990s,” he said, referring to their cost-cutting tactic of hiring unskilled projectionists in their highly automated environments.

“The large chains are in the food-service business. The movies are there as a loss leader to get people in to buy popcorn,” said Mr. Kruka, adding that the employers currently associated with the union are genuinely concerned about how films are presented.

According to Dave Callaghan, a second-generation projectionist whose passion for the craft is almost contagious, the projectionist’s main goal is to be invisible to the audience. “We bring an informed eye and ear to the movie-going experience. My role is to see that the film is reproduced in such an unobtrusive way that the audience gets so wrapped up in the story [they] forget they’re at the movies.”

Photo by John Wallington: "In 1969 the Cinema Lumiere (formerly The Garden and then the Electra Theatre) reopened. I believe Joe Dydzak, a theatre owner from Hamilton was using a non-union Projectionist. After a few days of picketing and a friendly cup of coffee at a restaurant across the street this projectionist was persuaded to join local 173. Maybe the special $10 initiation fee also helped. Normally the initiation fee was $300. The theatre became unionized as a result." Pictured, left to right, Bert Hill, Al Hope, Graydon Hulse (Union Business Agent) and Adrian Mighty.

Beginning his career at the former Cedarbrae Cinemas in Scarborough in 1971, Mr. Callaghan has worked at many forgotten Toronto movie houses, from the Golden Mile and the Roxy in Toronto’s east end, and for 13 years, the Hyland – one of the jewels of the former Odeon chain.

Jonathan Hlibka of the Projection Booth Theatre on Gerrard Street East asserts that adapting to new technologies will be essential to their craft. “They’ll have to learn the software, how the new hardware works, and have a deep understanding of the various formats as they emerge.” As Mr. Hlibka examines the digital cinema possibilities currently on the market for his theatre, he says the projectionist’s job is going to look a lot more like that of an engineer rather than a technician.

Both Mr. Kruka and Mr. Callaghan are well aware of how quickly new formats emerge. “I recently had to download a manual for a video projector I wasn’t entirely familiar with,” added Mr. Callaghan, who still works as a projectionist in various theatres around town, including Bell Lightbox and the Fox. “It’s a constant battle to keep up with everything.”

Eulogizing the physicality of real, pixel-free film, Mr. Callaghan said “it has a certain simplicity to it. You can just hold it up to the light and figure out what you need to do.”

Mr. Willick – whose theatre will still call on the union whenever 35-mm is screened – sympathizes with the cinephiles who bemoan the death of celluloid but maintains that the problem with the Canadian marketplace is the rough quality of circulating prints. “When we played The Shining last year, it was so brittle that it broke twice during the screening. That’s not charming, and it certainly doesn’t add any value to the experience.”

This year, they screened a digitally restored 2K version of Stanley Kubrick’s film and had their best Halloween-night attendance since taking over the cinema in 2007.

“It might seem like push-button automation, but the technology doesn’t have a brain,” said Mr. Callaghan, confident that the projectionist’s place in movie-going is at least more stable than that of the very film they’ve been handling for over a century.

Top image shows projectionists at the Imperial Cinema, circa 1940. Silent Toronto Archives.

Leave a Comment