Is it curtains for the Last Projectionist?

With the June release of the timely documentary The Last Projectionist, many UK cinemas are asking themselves what is the future of British cinema exhibition and what it all means for cinema’s unsung hero, the projectionist.

Working unsocial hours and well-versed in the alchemy of film, never before has the role of the projectionist been under such scrutiny. As many cinemas (both multiplex and independents) battle with rising costs, increasing competition from video-on-demand and video piracy, UK cinemas are increasingly forced to cut costs wherever possible. As such, the humble projectionist finds himself battling in cinema’s frontline. Confronted with advances in digital cinema and fully automated auditoriums, what will become of cinema’s guardians as we enter a new digital era?  With a lifetime of experience behind them and having managed to navigate a way through the myriad developments in film over previous decades, is the future bleak for the projectionist?

10 years after the UK Film Council’s ground-breaking programme to introduce the best digital projectors to independent cinemas, the majority of UK cinemas now screen predominantly from digital cinema package (DCP) with over 90% of films screened digitally. Only repertory cinemas, with a comprehensive festival or archive programme, have kept their 35mm projectors.

Whilst the ‘making up’, ‘breaking down’ and projection of celluloid film once took a lifetime to master, ‘technicians’ (as many are now known) can learn the rudiments of screening digitally in an afternoon, less if you already have a general understanding of IT. Reduced to the role of ‘caretaker’, pushing an ON/OFF button on a machine, many feel nostalgic for the good old days of projection, as seen in the film Cinema Paradiso. But were they really good? Ask any lover of film about the quality of digital projection and all would agree that it is now higher than that offered by conventional celluloid print projection. With increased luminosity and the latest technology allowing greater focus, cinephiles can watch films with crystal clear definition. Gone too is the noisy roar of the 35mm projector that could often be heard in the auditorium during quieter moments of a film.

Of course the screening of a film can be as of equal importance to its making and as recently as 2009, director Quentin Tarantino stipulated that his film Inglourious Basterds be screened from 35mm print only. Likewise, older projectionists feel nostalgic about the tradition of passing on their knowledge and heritage to the younger generation; something negated with the arrival of digital technology. Veteran projectionists have taken this as their cue to retire, and as such, there has been a sizable change in the diversity of projection teams across the country with younger projectionists recruited and increasingly more women in the role; both of which are vital for the craft to thrive.

Whilst it is easy to romanticise the demise of 35mm, the cinema money-men remain sanguine as digital projection requires smaller spaces in which to work,  less training and a smaller workforce; in short, lower overheads.
Cheaper to produce and transport, DCP allows for a greater number of films to be screened and distributed; from urban metropolises to bucolic retreats, film fans can rejoice in the fact that their beloved (aka little-known) Czech masterpiece can be screened to dazzling effect at either London’s most hi-tech cinemas or at their rural film society with only a few weeks separating the date between the screenings. Similarly, live screenings of classics from the theatre and ballet world, direct to cinemas have all been facilitated with the arrival of digital cinema.

Without the need for a large projection booth and prohibitive costs, one hopes that this might mean a rise in smaller, ’boutique-style’ cinemas across the country, that are able to screen a more creative programme of mainstream and independent film.

With economics playing a large part in the digital revolution, it seems the role of the projectionist is changing. As hours and staff numbers are cut, one questions how levels of service and projection can be maintained. In a post 35mm world,  people will always be needed to ensure that the film is projected correctly, at the right time and on the right screen. Digital ‘live’ screenings also have their own demands and challenges which need to be addressed by cinema staff,  but as the mechanics of daily cinema presentation become more automated and the lines between the IT technician and projectionist are blurred, let’s hope that this does not mean ‘curtains’ for the projectionist. As Mark Kemode remarked  ‘A building without a projectionist is not a cinema, just a sweet shop with a video’ .


~ by cinemalicious on May 4, 2012.

3 Responses to “Is it curtains for the Last Projectionist?”

  1. Ohh Yes ! – We are the last of the Mohicans !
    I’ve been a projectionist since 1978….
    – Glad to be working at a Cinematheque, were films will mostly be shown as “film” for a long time to come 😉

  2. Great post. Definitely something to think about. I love seeing films and this has been a favorite.

    • Thanks Jenny. It’s a strange time for many cinemas and film fans. On the one hand, the advent of the digital age does mean that smaller films are available more quickly for booking and does allow for greater choice in ‘provincial’ cinemas; but on the other, it does encourage lower standards in film presentation and marks the end of an era for film projection/projectionists as we know it…

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