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Projection Party

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Mark Kermode | 14:56 UK time, Tuesday, 3 January 2012

I've frequently drawn attention to the dwindling number of projectionists in our cinemas and the awful danger of them disappearing altogether.

I recently went along to their annual gathering to present an award and meet some of the last members of this esteemed profession...

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Related Posts on Kermode Uncut
Projecting The Future
The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex

Mark's reviews on 5 live
Take your pick from Mark's A-Z

Hear Mark Kermode review the week's new films every Friday from 2pm on BBC Radio 5 live. Kermode & Mayo's Film Review is also available as a free podcast to download and keep.



  • Comment number 1.

    Sorry Mark, I agree with you on a lot of things but to go from saying 'automated screenings sometimes fail and it is very annoying when they do' to 'a cinema without a projectionist is a sweet shop with a video' is a bit of a leap. Granted, if you can provide statistical evidence that they fail more often than manually projected screenings then fine, but we haven't seen that yet. It is sad to see people lose jobs that they have a passion for, but look at the other side of the argument: the consequence could be to drive down prices, making a trip to the cinema more attractive to a generation that prefers to download films for free.

  • Comment number 2.

    Of the two cinemas i regulary frequent i have never once experienced problems with the way the film was projected. Which made me think maybe a projectionist is still employed if only to over see the projection. So heres my suggestion to all kermodites: next time you go to the cinema ask if they still use a projectionist, it maybe they over see several screens at one time.

    With consumers able to choose how they see films cinemas themselves may become obsolete if they can't stay competitive.

  • Comment number 3.

    I was at a multiplex in Glasgow last week to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie (not very good, by the way - BBC series is better) and there they seemed to be offering me the choice of digital and non-digital projections. Is that common place? I live in the sticks and seldom get to a multiplex - my local cinema only has one screen, open three nights a week and not every week, and two excellent traditional projectionists who also serve as ushers before the film starts!
    I went for the digital Sherlock as that suited my schedule and it brokedown, though only briefly with no real impact on the film which (was well-made but essentially rubbish).

  • Comment number 4.

    With more and more content being delivered via the web (either legal pay-per-view or illegal downloads), more people adopting wide screen TVs and convergence of the web & TV/video it may only be the specialist cinemas that survive in a decade’s time.

    Anyone want to start a campaign to save the supermarket checkout worker as more and more supermarkets introduce scan-it-yourself systems?

    It’s one of the little talked about consequences of any technological/industrial revolution ~ it usually results in people losing their jobs as business owners realise there’s an opportunity to cut costs and increase profits. As for prices coming down, don’t hold your breath.

  • Comment number 5.

    "Anyone want to start a campaign to save the supermarket checkout worker as more and more supermarkets introduce scan-it-yourself systems?"

    Nah they will be fine as you need someone to enter a code when buying booze or films that have an age rating etc.

    It's the supermarkets 3D and I'm sure they only placed them for people who wanna do a small shop so the queues are smaller and the car park doesnt get packed when it doesn't have to meaning people don't drive to a local shop/another big chain elsewhere.

    Back on topic
    Mark being made a "crusader" made me chuckle :P

  • Comment number 6.

    As someone who used to work in a multiplex cinema (from November 2003-August 2004) and am currently reading 'The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex', I am appalled at the shabby way customer service has gone down the toilet.

    The cinema chains do not seem to realise that when something goes wrong with a film, you NEED a trained projectionist to sort it out. There have been far too many times where I have been to various cinemas and had the film racked too high or out of focus or the sound fuzzy and I have to go out of the screen to get a person to call projection to get it sorted, when a projectionist could see from the start that there was a problem and get it sorted.

    The first cinema I regularly went to from 1989 until 1993, there was never a problem as the projectionist had 3 screens to worry about.

    As for digital projection bringing the price of a cinema ticket down, I have just seen a pig cruising along happily at 20000 feet!!!

  • Comment number 7.

    @1 -- it shouldn't matter whether there is statistical evidence to show that automated projection systems fail more than manual -- the point is 100% of the time they do fail, there's no one to sort it out in a timely fashion. This means sitting in darkness, or watching a film projected upside down, or in the wrong aspect ratio funhouse mirror style, or top and bottom of screen swapped, etc. until a punter goes to complain.

    Now that quality home viewing is within the grasp of most of us, apart from the bigger screen and possibly the atmosphere of a communal experience, what do the theatres offer? They should offer quality presentation of the films themselves, and at the very least this includes having them properly projected. Even on an IMAX screen at a local multiplex I recently had to suffer one of the trailers being played backwards and upside down, thankfully this surreal glitch didn't extend to the feature.

    Unfortunately I missed out two opportunities earlier in my life for work as a projectionist. I may soon be helping a charity that puts on film shows, but it is largely a disc and a digital projector type affair. That may be only a few notches up from a sweet shop and a video, but at least at that scale there is one projectionist with one projector and the audience know where he is.

  • Comment number 8.

    Very sad yes but you were wrong about one thing:

    The most important person/people in the cinema are the audience Dr. Kermode - without them a projectionist would never have been a job vacancy in the first place

  • Comment number 9.

    Hey Mark, it was great to see and meet you at this event. I am currently a voluntary trainee projectionist at Saffron Screen (who won the main award last year). I was the young man in the Twin Peaks t-shirt, and we had a chat about John Waters.

  • Comment number 10.

    An anjoyable take on the whole projectionist debate Dr K . I grew up watching manually projected films and would love as a child to squint into the little square at the back of the cinema to see if I could actually see who was in there, of course I rarely saw more than shadows. Then many years later watching Cinema Paradiso it was like being allowed a peep into a secret place, and one of the reasons that film has always held a place in my heart. Honestly I think the digital age is well and truly in charge now, a great shame as there's something rather romantic and almost noble about the traditional methods, in as much as being safe in the knowledge that an individual 'cares' enough to want to present the film to the audience in the best way they can, that aspect of the whole experience computers will never replace . Happy New Year one and all!!

  • Comment number 11.

    Almost 10 years ago I was working at an Odeon, 10 screens total all on the ground floor. If I recall correctly they employed a grand total of two projectionists who worked alternating shifts...
    One person for ten screens has never really sounded enough for me, god forbid anything should go wrong with one screen but two at the same time would be disastrous.
    The general manager at the time used to grumble about how much the projection staff were paid and seemed to be constantly trying to cut down their hours to the point where he would hold back a morning's delivery of film
    meaning the projectionist would have to prepare the newly arrived film whilst maintaining ten screens at once rather than have a spare hour or two first thing in a morning before projection started in earnest.
    Whilst there are some good things to be said for digital projection, the automation side just seems to be the newest phase, since the advent of multiplexes, in ousting projectionists...

  • Comment number 12.

    I appreciate the romantic angle this blog is taking towards cinema projection but a few technical details to balance the argument out.
    When a 35mm print 'brain wraps', and bunches up and ultimately snaps the print, how long does it take a projectionist to get it back on screen without cutting a chunk of the film and splicing it back together?
    When a projectionist drops a film on the floor, how long does it take to put it back together?
    When a projectionist makes a film up and puts a reel in upside down, what can be done to save the performance? When there is a base or emulsion scratch on the print, what can be done?
    These are all realistic issues, some are human error. Mistakes happen.
    I can understand the comfort of having a trained projectionist in the building, but do you think cinemas are stupid enough not to have people on site with training to not be able to fix issues with digital projection?
    I can tell you it can take hours to put a film back on the platter when it has flown off onto the floor.
    With digital if the film is upside down you stop the projector and fix it, it could be a cue issue in a 3D screen with 2D cues. Human error but mistakes happen. Yes there is a delay, but is the delay really any longer than if the issue was with 35mm. You can also rewind a digital film in the event of a problem, ensuring the audience don't miss any of the film.
    I get the romantic side of a projectionist making up a print with loving care, and having someone in the booth who loves projecting film onto the screen. But I also get digital. My eyesight is not good enough to appreciate the picture quality digital projection brings, it makes no difference to me. I have known some wonderful projectionists in my lifetime, people who love what they do (it has never been well paid) and it is a skill.
    But its always nice to see a balanced argument.

  • Comment number 13.

    I have zero clue how films look in UK and European theaters, but here in the US, the problem of not having projectionists is a huge problem. In Dayton, Ohio, my current city of residence, there are four theaters. Of the four, only one still uses projectionists and is by far the best quality theater in the area. At the other three cinemas, I have now seen nine straight (yes, I have counted and complained to the manager about all nine) films projected improperly (this also includes the house lights not working properly). My complaints have been met with free passes to more films and those viewings have more often than not met with more poor projections. For anyone who says that is rare for a film to not be projected properly does not see enough movies. I would consider it against the odds for me to see nine straight films that had major technical problems. The only answer I can think of is he rise of "automated" projectors that cannot tell when something is wrong.

  • Comment number 14.

    My personal film going experiences without projectionists or even just someone who cared enough:

    1. I went to see Man on Wire. They were late letting us in, maybe because they were cleaning up after the last showing or something, I don't know because they didnt say. We walk in 15 minutes late, AND THE FILM'S ALREADY STARTED! If there had been anyone with an ounce of sense behind the projector, they might have waited, but the machine obviously on auto-play just carried on.

    2. Went to see Avatar in 3D. There was a really annoying blue spot on side of the screen throughout the whole film. Was with a new girlfriend, so didn't make a fuss, for fear of looking like a mad cinema-obsessed lunatic (I have shamed the Kermode, who I know would not consider this). But I did mention it to a manager on the way out afterwards and received two free tickets for another showing.

    3. With those free tickets I went to see Avatar again, this time in 2D and with another friend. Again, this time, the screen was fuzzy. Exasperated, I left half an hour in (leaving my friend who was not as particular as me), and talked to the manager, who said it was all automated and there was nothing he could do. So now twice I have seen Avatar, and both times fuzzy, which is a shame considering its such a visual film (certainly not known for its dialogue, which gets worse by about a factor of 10 every time you watch it).

    Digital is the way forward and the projectionist trade is dying. But there just needs to be one person, who goes around checking the quality control at the start of every screening. Is that too much to ask?

  • Comment number 15.

    @1 "but look at the other side of the argument: the consequence could be to drive down prices, making a trip to the cinema more attractive to a generation that prefers to download films for free."

    Jog on fella, the multiplexes have been using digital for ages yet, up go the prices. Independent cinema just getting involved.

    My local cinema used to have a great projectionist, big body builder fella, he left and down it went. Last film I bothered to go to see there (I used to be twice to thrice regular because it only had two screens) was what lies beneath. The whole film for 2 reels was out of focus!

    I remember going to see T2 Judgement Day for the first time and waiting nearly two hours for the counter staff to wake the drunken muppet after he locked himself in passed out. Hey, great to have had great projectionists, but alot weren't, so to do away with them isn't a bad thing.

    By and by, IMAX, who your yourself is rooting for for a more immersive experience than 3D only projects digital, all part of the IMAX experience. That reminds me, first and only time I saw a 3D movie was in the IMAX in the Trocadero in Soho, blew me away. Never bothered my ass since. Did however think that glasses with full 5.1 sound was awasome though. Munch popcorn in my ear will ya?

  • Comment number 16.


  • Comment number 17.

    Really nice and nostalgic piece. May just be pure coincidence but there have been a couple of times recently where digital projectors have got off to an iffy start at one of my nearby cinema's main screen, so it's very perceptive of Mark to have addressed the issue in his book.

    What's fascinating about said issue (in the book) is that he can easily be accused of being a Luddite, but he presents a very good case as to why there should be a resistance to digital projectors rendering projectionists literally redundant. The sole exception is the IMAX format which, for grand-scale pictures, remains the best cinematic experience.

  • Comment number 18.

    Having read Mark's entertaining new book this Christmas, I would like to add my experience of a visit today to my local Multiplex (Vue in Harrow) when I took the kids to see "Johnny English" (which they enjoyed, btw).

    I could have done without the EXTREMELY LOUD COMPRESSED AUDIO of the trailers (which makes every sound come out at MAXIMUM VOLUME), but it was when the main feature started that I noticed that the picture didn't reach the 'masking' at the edge of the screen (which is there to give a nice sharp edge to the picture).

    After the show I found the 17-year-old manager to ask why the picture had not been projected properly, and why (ho ho ho) the "projectionist" hadn't noticed.

    After explaining that cinemas don't need projectionists these days "because it's all digital", it also turns out that they don't (drum roll) even bother to change the masking between films either. So all films just get projected onto a full 3D-sized unadjusted wide screen regardless of their actual individual requirement.

    In defence of Vue the auditorium was otherwise clean and air-conditoned. However, just like Mark, I no longer regard it as a 'proper' cinema - it's just a place where they show films to accompany their overpriced snacks.

  • Comment number 19.

    I'm a Projectionist in a 7 screen site and that's probably the most screens you can have and keep the quality, I covered at a 14 screen site earlier last year (which is now digital!) and you are literally just lacing up and letting them autostart without checking them as there's no time. I've been to that site once as a customer and I had to go out and tell someone that it was out of focus.
    If you think the prices will go down you clearly don't work in a cinema, or live in the real world!
    In the 6 years that I've worked here the number of staff has been severely reduced so we're always understaffed now, and that's just downstairs!
    I can tell you from experience that the digital projectors go wrong a hell of a lot more than the 35mm Vic 5s and most of the time the only way to fix it is to restart it which takes around 15 mins so that showing is lost whereas on the rare occasions the 35mm Projs go wrong you can get it back on screen within a short time.
    A few years ago our company opened it's first all digital cinema and they had more incident reports (when free tickets have to be given out) in the first year than all the other cinemas in the company added together!!

    My new years resolution is to got as many photos and videos of my job as I can as it truly is the end of an era. 100 years of film is of and now is the era of the video file.

    As far as a reel in upside down or in the wrong position goes, we print check all films before public showings to ensure the public only get a good quality show. the trailers however are done each week and if they have been wound head-out before being put into the trailer cupboard they could potentially be put in back to front! Rarely happens though.
    Pearl and dean no longer do our advertising (and haven't done for a year now) so every now and again I stick a pearl and dean tag in a staff show for nostalgia sake. For me the pah-pah-pah-pah is the sound of the cinema.


  • Comment number 20.

    Mark, are you going to do a Top 5 Films of 2011 at some point? Just wonderin'.

  • Comment number 21.

    Great post Robert, I hope Mark reads that out

    This might be a bit off topic guys so I apologise if it is.

    I was watching a BBC documentary last week on film epic's and how Hollywood before dealt with the threat of television.
    They simply increased the standard of their films and this is something that Hollywood should look back to from the ground up if they are really threatened by other media and the push for 3D and digital projection.

    Instead of cutting corners like with digital (both films and projectionist's) and feeling they no longer need projectionists and the computer is perfect "It's just a learning curve at the moment and the laughable push for 3D.

    They should...

    1. 2-3 projectionist's on each of their cinema's payroll or five trained experts that monitor the film at least 4 times during the showing of a film.
    2. Usher's
    3. Bring back "epic" to films instead of doing something digital in a film that TV can pretty much do now (Game of Thrones and Heroes) use real people instead of pushing 3D which clearly no one cares about. People are not stupid and are not easily fooled by digital. Show 1000 people in a battle like with a blockbuster and people will appreciate it more than for half or whatever doing it digital.
    4. Force cinema's to your changes or make your own chains like WB's do with VUE and boycott places like Cineworld.

    So in short scrap 3D and make cinema's better and improve the production of films as history shows offering something that TV or other media can’t do gets Hollywood out of a problem. 3D has always failed but for some reason Hollywood is still adding this in post production.

  • Comment number 22.

    I am lucky that my two local Edinburgh cinema haunts have a projectionist. I miss this when I do as often also venture to the Odeon etc. Problems in either are rare but you need someone qualified to do so when it occurs. Such declines first came in with banishing of in screen ice cream seller, then went the ushers, and so it goes.

  • Comment number 23.

    @20 Dr. K did a top 11 for 2011 which you can get on the Dec 30th podcast:

  • Comment number 24.

    Good for you Mark! The projectionists are lucky to have you fighting their corner.

    Its very sad that yet again technology (however cost effective and clever it is) is threatening the demise of a superior art, even books aren't safe from this digital obsession with the release of tablets. Where will this end!

  • Comment number 25.

    "A building without a projector is not a cinema it's a sweet shop with a video. "

    Quote of the year.

  • Comment number 26.

    Gawd bless yer Guv'nor. Good to see you there and great to be able to thank you for supporting us. And allowing me a slightly tipsy Silent Running waffle.
    You're a gent and no mistake.

  • Comment number 27.

    Dear Mark,

    Thanks for bringing our attention to this issue, of which I'm sure most of use were unaware.

    On a totally different note, I was recently watching Inside the Actors Studio with Matt Damon and of course the topic came up of Good Will Hunting and the precedent set by Sylvester Stallone with Rocky by which they were able to star in the very movie they wrote, despite being relative unknowns.

    As a budding screenwriter, although not interesting in acting, I'd love to see you do a piece about people who have broken into the business by starring in the very movies which they've written. I'm sure there are more examples than just these two.


  • Comment number 28.

    You seem to have struck a nerve with the projectionist at the Irish Film Institute - he has a (positive) response here:

  • Comment number 29.

    I haven't been to the cinema since '96 and I have to say I am utterly amazed at the poor quality of service you people are actually prepared to accept from cinemas these days. Films with the wrong aspect ratio; films shown with the lights still on, all through the film; cinemas showing the wrong film! If this were any other service sector offering such shoddy customer service, you would demand your money back. Why don't you? As long as the industry thinks they can get away with all these failings, the lack of projectionists will be the least of your problems; things will only get worse, as indeed appears to be the case.

  • Comment number 30.

    I've never worked with digital projection, but I would not call inserting a reel upside down in the middle of a feature a mistake. This is pure negligence and I cannot understand how it can happen, no matter if one reel may be wound opposite to all the others on arrival at the cinema, and possibly with the leaders and tails on the wrong ends, you check and check again.
    I've made mistakes in my 50 years, such as missing the odd change over, after all you only had to sneeze and blink your eyes and it was end of reel 1 !

  • Comment number 31.

    I saw the movie in digital projection,but I wanted to see in imax,unfortunately I don't have imax cinema in my country.
    The movie is great,a big puzzles,big show,in fact everything is big.
    Voice of Bane was quite clear,and I don't see the problem.Most complain are the people which is the English major language.
    The dark knight rises is the movie who shouldn't gonna be a slave to technology.


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