5 Minutes With: A Projectionist

Last week I had the pleasure of talking to John Marmo, who has had 40 plus years experience as an active projectionist in the New Jersey and New York areas. I’ve always been curious what goes on in that booth behind me with the flickering light, and finally had the opportunity to find out.

S: When and how did you begin work as a projectionist?

JM: I began when I was a little kid, maybe 8, 9 years old. I come from a family of projectionists. My grandfather was a projectionist, my uncles were projectionists, my father was a projectionist, so when I was young I used to go to work with them, and they would have me do things, so the taller I grew, the more I could do in terms of threading projectors. I’ve been in projection booths since I was 8 or 9 years old.

S: Wow that’s really cool.

JM: I was admitted to the union, I guess when I was about 18, and that’s when I started working as a solo projectionist making money.

S: That was kind of a freelance gig?

JM: Well, the union had contracts with all the movie theaters to supply projectionists, and I would just go with my relatives that were…my grandfather, my uncles or my father that were union projectionists, so it was their job and I went and worked with them, and then when I became of age and got admitted to the union, then I was assigned to a theater.

S: Ah okay, so you get a assigned to a theater, I see.

JM: That’s kind of like…are you a baseball fan?

S: Yeah.

JM: Okay, well it’s a lot like baseball, where they have the minor leagues and the major leagues. So when you first get into the union, you work in the minor leagues which is…at that time it was porn houses and inner city theaters and one or two screens. And then as you get more experienced and you get older, you would start working in the theaters on the highway, more screens and then eventually you’re working in the megaplexes and the multiplexes. So you kind of have to work your way up. The more you knew, the better you got, the better jobs you got.

S: So I guess that’s what attracted you to the job, that it ran in the family? Was it that it felt like a birthright?

JM: You know, when I first started, it was somewhat of a birthright. You could trace everybody in the union to a dozen families that were in the Passaic County area where the union first started. And then I came of age in the seventies, and when I was elected business agent, we started opening it up. So some time around the seventies and the eighties, we stopped being a union where it was a birthright, and we became more inclusive, where we started accepting more people that weren’t related to some founding member, we started accepting minorities, started accepting women, we just evolved with the times, we became more inclusive.

S: Very cool. Now, what does the job entail?

JM: Well, I mean, projectionists…the job has changed as the technology changed. When I first started, the picture on the screen was illuminated by carbon arcs, so it was a positive and negative carbon and those carbons would burn for twenty minutes, so every twenty minutes you were switching from film playing on one machine to another, so you were constantly doing everything, and those theaters were just single theaters. Mainly it was just threading the film, making sure you kept the schedule, cleaning the film, cleaning the projectors. Those early mechanical projectors had a lot of moving parts so they constantly had to be oiled, constantly had to be greased, so mainly it was just staying up in that projection booth, change threadings and changing reels every fifteen or twenty minutes. Eventually they replaced the carbon arcs with xenon lamps that would burn continually, so there was no longer the need for projectionists to switch from one projector to another. Did you ever go to a movie theater and notice in the upper right hand corner a series of circles every once in a while?

S: Yea that means you have to change the reel right?

JM: That was the cue for the projectionists. There were two sets of circles. The first set of circles that you saw you would start your secondary projector, the second set of circles you would hit a little foot pedal and that would switch the picture and sound from one projector to another. And those were timed on fifteen to twenty minute reels because that’s how long the carbons would burn. So the projectionist was constantly switching from one projector to another, rewinding reels, rethreading reels. But once they came up with the xenon bulbs, that bulb would burn ten, twelve hours in a row if you wanted to. So the xenon bulb was the thing that enabled theaters to all of a sudden go from a single screen theater to a twin, triple, and you see where it is now, you have some theaters that have twenty, thirty screens in a complex. So that was the first technology that was introduced that changed the way projectionist jobs stood. Because then all of a sudden, instead of one person being responsible for one screen, then all of a sudden, one person was responsible for multiple screens. Cause instead of going from reel to reel, they spliced all the reels together. A movie would usually be about five reels, six reels, all of a sudden you spliced all the reels together and ran it over a horizontal platter…have you ever been in a projection booth?

S: Never been, no.

JM: Okay, well, if you’re ever in the New York City area give me a call and if I’m free, I’ll take you down to a theater and you can see what a projection booth actually looks like. But the projection booth started changing, the xenon bulbs came in, the platter delivery system for films came. So all of a sudden the projectionist became responsible for multiple screens in a complex. Plus when the new movie started on Friday, the projectionist would get the films the day before, would have to splice everything together, put it onto the platter, add on the trailers, the coming attractions, any advertising, and that was when the projection of films was in the analog state. You actually had physical film, you could touch and feel. I’d say in the last ten years the technology has advanced, and tell me if I’m getting ahead of myself.

S: Oh don’t worry, just keep going.

JM: The last ten years, they’ve evolved from analog to digital where now instead of receiving film on reels in cans that may weigh fifty, sixty pounds, now you get the whole film that’s encoded on a digital drive that is that size of a paperback book. Put a USB into a server and you download the whole movie into the projector. So there is nothing physical in the projection booth anymore. A lot of theaters, you go to projection booths now and nobody’s in the projection booth cause the job has pretty much become obsolete. Everything is run from a central server. Somebody could sit in front of a computer and they can say, “Okay, I want the Hobbit to play on screen three today and I want Walter Mitty to play on screen five, I want this movie to play in that,” so everything is just somebody sitting there and transferring files from one server to another.

S: When you started seeing the digital format becoming more prevalent, did you have a certain amount of skepticism? Did you understand that it might be better, but were upset that you may lose your job to it? Or is there something about film format that you find preferable?

JM: I mean to a degree, I was sad that a skillset and a craft and a profession  was being fazed out, but you know, on the other hand I’m a realist and this is the way of the world. Film was nice, you talk to some people and you say “What do you like better, analog film? Or do you like the digital?” And they’ll have reasons on both sides. Some people say film looks better, it’s a warmer image on the screen, and the digital people will say, yea but you can play a print the first time and you can play it a thousand times and it will still look as good. Cause when film goes through air and goes through a mechanical projector it picks up dirt, it picks up scratches. You don’t get any of that with digital. The image is as pristine on the first showing as it is on the thousandth showing. So you know, I guess it was bittersweet, it was sad to see a profession being eliminated but that was the way of the world and I used to tell the projectionists that worked for me that you have to stay current with the technology and you have to adapt to it because it’s not going to stop and since I’ve started working not with the union and working with theaters in a different capacity, I’ve come to understand more, how expensive it is to actually run a movie theater.

You know, between all of the things they have to do in terms of health and safety codes, how they have to make the features and the viewing accessible to handicapped groups, how they have to appeal to demographics, it’s an expensive proposition to run a movie theater, so exibition (the theater owners) they’re always looking for, “how can we do this most efficiently and most cost effective?” Digital was expensive for them to transfer to because if a theater owner of a tenplex had a million dollars invested in analog film equipment, he was asked to transfer to digital equipment which meant that million dollars was just written off and he had to spend another million to get the new type of equipment. But the theater owners and Hollywood came to some kind of a business model called a VPF (Virtual Print Fee), where they worked it out where there was the cost of transferring the investment of equipment was shared by Hollywood and the exhibitors. Twenty years ago when I first started hearing about digital, everyone was saying, “It’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen,” it took about twenty years for it to happen. It started slow but the last three, four years it’s just really snowballed where to the point that by the middle of 2014, it’s gonna be hard for a theater owner to even get a film print. Everything is going to be digital.

S: I’m going to ask one more question to close off the interview. It’s been a great interview, and I really appreciate it. 

JM: I had a good time, I’m not busy and I’m in a chatty mood. So what is your last question?

S. My last question is what was your favorite moment as a projectionist?

JM: My favorite moment as a projectionist? (pondering) I’ve worked a lot of screenings, and I did a lot of installations. I guess my favorite was, I can’t remember the year, Peter Jackson had just finished filming his version of King Kong and I was in a theater in New York City and it was the world premier of his King Kong movie, so I guess showing the movie to Peter Jackson. I’ve always admired him as a filmmaker. So showing the film to him.