Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain

We’ve all wondered about the Man Behind the Curtain at the movie theatre, haven’t we?  Who’s watching from the projection booth, we ask?  Who sees when we make out with our significant other in the back row?  Who frowns down on us when we pull a box of Walmart Charleston Chew from our purse? Who knows when we put our feet on the seat in front of us, when we spill popcorn and neglect to pick it up, when we’re on our cell phones for the duration of the movie?

The answer, from this point on, must of course be me, although having done much of the above myself, I assure you I won’t judge too harshly.

You see, last night I worked my first shift as a projectionist-in-training.

I have photos to prove it (sorry about the poor quality; it was dark in the room):

Here’s the projection room. It’s small and very hot, due to the large, very hot equipment filling it. As you can see, the theatre I work at uses old-school film reels instead of digital projection. We’re working on raising the money for digital, but until then, I feel lucky to have a chance to learn the old ways of the reel before it’s gone forever.

The projector. In case you’re not sure how it works, a projector basically shines bright, intense light from an inner-located bulb through film that is moved rapidly in front of it.  The scenes printed on the film are then projected onto the screen.

In order for the film to keep moving quickly and steadily, it is threaded through a series of gates at the front of the projector. If something goes wrong, and the film slips out of place, the gates will catch it and stop the movie so that the projectionist can make necessary adjustments.

After being threaded through the gates, the film is unrolled across the room to be threaded over and under several pulleys. The clear film, which I call leeway film (not its proper name), is film with nothing printed on it that is attached to the black movie film. The clear film is what is initially threaded through the gates and pulleys; if it gets a little crumpled in the process, no part of the actual movie is damaged.

The turntable (again, probably not its official name). The large roll of movie film sits on the middle tier. As the movie plays, the film unrolls from the middle, runs through the projector, and rolls back through the pulley system and onto the top tier.

Rolls of film that are mailed to us by the film companies, and then sent back when we’re done with them.

To my delight, I received a short history lesson as I was being trained. The theatre was built in 1940, and at that time, film was extremely flammable. Pair that with hot bulbs, and you have a huge fire hazard. Aware of this, projection rooms were designed carefully: if you look at the first photo in the post, you can see small brown windows with attached doors that fall shut if the string holding them up is released (the window is down in the photo). If a fire broke out, the idea was that it would burn through the string, closing the windows and preventing the flames from spreading to the rest of theatre. Along the same lines, the heavy door to the projection room (shown in the above photo) was also attached to an elaborate system of strings and pulleys, which would release when burned, causing the door to slam shut. Old-time projectionists, then, were told to leave the equipment and save themselves in a fire; if they didn’t hurry out of the room, they would be barred in by the shut door and windows.  Needless to say, things are a lot safer nowadays.  Flame-resistant film is standard.

This has nothing to do with projection, but this is where we keep the letters for the marquee. Sometimes we’ll run out of black, and then whoever’s turn it is to scale the ladder to switch the film title has to make do with the odd red letter instead.

A carton of movie posters for upcoming films. It took all of my willpower not to snatch one to hang up in my bedroom.

The sole screen at my theatre. Despite severely limited seating, no moviegoers (to my knowledge) have ever been left out in the cold, even at the final Harry Potter premiere, when the line wrapped all the way around the corner of the building, so that the last poor sop was jammed up against the ATM at the bank. It’s actually kind of magical in that everyone somehow manages to squeeze in.

Please Stop Sneaking in Walmart Candy

There’s nothing quite like going to see a movie at the movie theatre.  I’ve loved it ever since I was a little girl, and although, then and since, I’ve not gone more than a few times a year, it’s always been one of my favorite things to do.

There’s nothing like the smell of popcorn and the crush of stray Hot Tamales underfoot.  There’s nothing like waiting, breathlessly, for the lights to darken and the screen to quiet.  There’s nothing like previews, which are often more entertaining than the movie itself.  There’s nothing like sitting in a theatre with hundreds of people, and hearing everyone sob at once, or laugh at once, or scream at once.

Movies, I firmly believe, are best when shared.  They’re best when more than one hand digs into a bucket of popcorn, and several straws are poked into one giant Coke (although who ever remembers which straw is which?).  They’re best, of course, when seen in a theatre.

Which is why, as we all knew I would, I thoroughly enjoy my volunteer gig at the local movie theatre.  As of right now, I’ve worked a concessions training shift and a ticket booth training shift.  Both were enjoyable, but what I really want to do is be a projectionist (yes, that’s an actual title).  I’ve wondered for some time now about the man-in-the-tiny-room-behind-the-theatre, and it’s time I found out.  The theatre I work at, additionally, still uses old-fashioned reels.  They’re saving to buy a digital projector, but before that happens, I want to nudge myself into that tiny room.

One of my English professors (let me tell you, I’ve seen several, several professors today, between the theatre and the grocery store and walking down my street) is a projectionist, and he offered to let me shadow him on any Monday when he works.  I think I’ll take him up on that offer.  Tomorrow.

In the meantime, friends, please stop sneaking snacks into the movie theatre.  I know that jumbo box of Charleston Chew is cheaper at Walmart, but here’s what I’ve learned: individual movie theatres only get to keep about 6% of every ticket they sell.  The movie production companies get the rest.  Ergo, almost all theatre profits come from concessions.  It makes sense, then, that concessions are overpriced; because if they weren’t, the theatre likely couldn’t stay afloat.  So every few months, when it’s rainy, and when you decide to go see the new Nicholas Cage, please please buy concessions at the theatre.  I know I will from now on.