Monday, October 1, 2007

Technology Has Done it Again

In the early 1970s every single movie theater in Sacramento County employed union projectionists. Now, in 2007, there is one theater left using the union. There are only seven projectionists in Local 50. The Crest Theatre employs them all. Union-paid projectionists are a dying breed, and they will never repopulate the movie industry.

In the early days of the movie theater development, projection work was a trade skill. Projectionists had to know a lot about the mechanics of their work. Film was run on reel-to-reel until the mid 1970s. That meant they had to constantly be ready to transfer film from one reel to another. Every 20 minutes the film had to be switched from one machine to another as the reels ran out. Burn marks in the film signaled the projectionist to switch from machine number one to number two, and if done correctly, it went unnoticed by the viewing audience. After the machine switched over, the projectionist set up the unused machine to run the next reel.

By the early 1980s, movie projector technology progressed, allowing the projectionist to only have to make one change over in a film. Movies were still run on reel-to-reel machines though, and projectionists still had jobs.

Technology became the downfall of the industry as the advent of the automated machine was developed in the mid 1980s. That machine was the death toll for the union projectionist. They no longer had to remain in the booth to watch the film and change the reels. Film was “built” onto a platter big enough to hold the entire film and then automatically sent to the projector. Automated machines were also set up to dim and raise the lighting as well as lift the curtain of the movie screen. This allowed the projectionist to just push a button to start the movie, and then go out for lunch for a few hours.

Major corporations like Century Theaters and United Artists caught on that projectionists’ jobs were less demanding and by the 1990s they took union projectionists off the payroll and hired minimum-wage employees that were trained by the union workers they replaced. Making the profit margin for big businesses grow even wider.

The unfortunate result of losing union projectionists is that film work is no longer treated as an important element of the movie viewing experience. During the union’s heyday, projectionists had to pass a test, proving they were worthy of the trade. They cared about the film, making sure each reel was spliced correctly, and that there were no scratches on the print. Today, moviegoers are subject to dim lighting and scratches on the film, missing seconds in the movie due to poor splicing, and even films that start in the middle because the projectionist didn’t know how to properly build the film onto the platter.

The future of projectionists is even worse. In California there are approximately 100 theaters employing union projectionists, most of them on a part-time basis. Only major metropolises like Los Angeles and New York have any significant numbers among them. As technology continues to progress, all projectionists, not just union-paid ones, will become obsolete.

1 comment:

Michael J. Fitzgerald said...

This column takes a swipe at technology that raises an interesting, ongoing debate.

The famous anecdote from many years ago was when labor leader John L. Lewis confronted the owner of steam shovel and said, "Don't you realize 100 men with shovels could do this same job?" to which the steam shovel owner said, "yes, or 1,000 men with tablespoons."

I think the column makes many good points and gives some insight into the technology that has, for good or bad, been passed by.

The other side of this - the jobs created by the new technologies and the effect on movie viewers - might make for an interesting followup.