By Steph Pixley
I recently had the opportunity to catch the theatrical premier of a new film by director Peter Flynn, THE DYING OF THE LIGHT, at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA. No, this wasn’t the 2004 Nicholas Cage film of the same title, instead it was a thoughtful, beautifully shot, and timely documentary. It dug into the transition of movie houses across the country from film to digital projection, told through the eyes of the people who arguably know the subject most intimately, the projectionists themselves.
To show the evolution of movie theaters and film projection over the past half century, the film gives viewers a personal tour of a few movie houses around the country with the projectionists who used to work there as our guides. We see the ruins of the Michigan Theater, a movie palace turned parking lot in Detroit, the struggling but still opulent Lansdowne Theater in Pennsylvania, and even the digital setup at the Coolidge. Seeing these old and abandoned movie houses is like looking through a time machine. You can easily imagine families dressed in their finest being ushered to their seats to see the weekly show. These movie houses were built to be a destination and not a casual venue as we think of them today. Projectionists were trained in the art of the perfect show: opening and closing the curtain with perfect timing so that the audience never saw the white screen and transitioning reels flawlessly so no one ever knew there was a man behind the curtain were both key to ensuring the film ran without a hitch. By these standards, in some ways the digital transition has provided the ultimate movie going experience: today when you arrive at a theater, the show is already playing in the form of trailers and advertisements that have been preprogrammed, even before the show really starts. The audience will never get a chance to see the blank white screen.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the film was the unearthing of forgotten projectionist booths across the country. Most booths were and continue to be hidden from view, at the back of the house (or even hidden behind the screen as is the case at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, MA), and behind unassuming doors. Most moviegoers will never even notice them, aside from the flickering light over their heads while seated or the small windows along the back wall of the theater, so in some ways it’s unsurprising that when the filmmakers trekked their way up the flights of stairs at the ruins of the Victory Theater in Holyoke, MA, they found the projectionist booth largely untouched, aside from some animal carcasses and a thick layer of dust. It’s not all gloom and doom for the art of film projecting however. With last winter’s release of, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, on 70mm film, the local Boston Light & Sound suddenly had an order for hundreds of 70mm film projectors. To fill their order, co-founders Chapin Cutler and Larry Shaw resurrected and restored projectors that were headed for the landfill.
The projectionists themselves seemed to be split about the future of their profession with the dawn of the digital age. Some embraced the transition as just another advancement in film, much like sound and then color were in their dawn, while others viewed digital film as a threat to their livelihood and that of small-scale movie houses. Unsurprisingly, digital film doesn’t require any hands on work during projection, so movie houses can grow exponentially and play more and more films without the need to hire more projectionists. Meanwhile, nostalgic projectionists mourn the loss of the tactile experience of projecting a film and film geeks worry about the loss of quality in the transition from 70mm film to digital.
Regardless of their outlook, all projectionists seemed to mourn the loss of the presence of the hulking body of the projector itself in their booths. For the time being it seems that theaters are making a compromise of sorts, by investing in new technology and retaining film projectors for special screenings. So, the next time you decide to see a movie pay attention to how its being projected, and thank the projectionist on the way out!