Re-Building A Movie Going Culture

The sound of when two carbon rods hits stays with you. The crackle of electricity, the burst of ozone, and the the explosion of light really made projection booths an almost sacred place. I first got exposed to a projection booth in the 1970’s. In the days before platter systems and xenon bulbs, it took two projectors to show a movie, alternating with 20 minute reels. I used to see the donut appear in the upper right of the screen, faint bells were heard in the background and ten seconds later the reels changed. Usually the change was not noticeable because in those days the projection was handled by professional, IATSE journeymen who brought skill and art to the craft of projecting a movie. I would often sit in these booths and talk to the projectionists. Their stories were fascinating and the walls of the booth dripped with history and memories. Tales of the dangers of nitrate based films and the long unused fire doors gave testament to the fact that one time a projectionist could face danger in their profession.

With the number of prints utilized for a films release expanding due to a shift in distribution strategy by the studios heads, new technology like platters and polyester based films was introduced. Acetate was replaced due to the fact that the number of prints required for a release, duplicating the prints one at a day was not workable. Sprinters were created to spit out 3000 prints in a matter of a week. Craftsmanship disappeared from the film laboratory.

I walked into a theatre once during a screening of Rear Window and was blown away by the density and the color of the picture that flickered on screen. I asked the projectionist the origin of the print and he told me with a great deal of nostalgia that they had managed to secure a acetate print of the Hitchcock masterpiece. When Grace Kelly first appeared on screen, my breath was literally taken away. The blacks were so lush in that print that I realized how much the audiences of today were missing out. It was a transcendent experience.

The projectionist with their art and skill have faded away from the theatres. In the expansion of distribution patterns the spectacle of movie going has been seriously eroded. Movie theatres of my childhood and my youth have been replaced by garish and cheap looking multiplexes, buildings with no history or tradition. The platters have given way to 2K projectors. The show has now become a process and as a result, greatly diminished. When one thought it could not have gotten worse, the cable companies and other media behemoths decided to acquire the movies studios.

Cable TV was rapidly evolving. The 500 channel universe descended upon us and decided to consume massive amounts of product. Initially the cable outlets acquired movies from the studios. As a result of the massive amount of money they were paying the studios they thought it would make more sense if they acquired the studios. With that the cable comapnies suddenly had the in-house ability to produce quality cutting edge programming. The Sopranos arrived with a bang and audiences saw a new form of content emerge, the cabl series. Cable companies took that talent that made cutting edge movies and seconded them in order to re-shape the cable universe. When the pilot show of “The Boardwalk Empire” was made, it was given a $18 million dollar budget for the production of the 52 minute show. As broadcast television lost footing and cable rose, it became apparent that soon video on demand and ott porgramming ie NetFlix and Amazon would be soon snapping at the heels of cable. The market became super heated, content became more commoditized and movies, my beloved movies increasingly were proclaimed as a dead medium.

Digital technology is interesting because in many ways it’s a great leveling force. A film made in 1960 could be re-introduced into the market place at the same time as the latest chapter of the RAMBO series. Day and date, the coming practice of releasing movies in the theatres and on Netflix and video on demand the same time threatens to further diminish movie going. Day and date will be a crushing blow for theatres, especially when the Weinstein/Netflix deal gets put into place. But what it does do is increase the value of repertory films; older movies……movies from the golden age of movie going. This has been a long time coming and in many ways the theatrical exhibitors themselves were the architects of their own demise.

When Nat Taylor pioneered the multiple theatre concept by dualling the Elgin Theatre in Ottawa in 1957 and then in1969 adapting the Loew’s Uptown in Toronto into five screens 1979 Taylor created a new company, Cineplex, and built the first multiplex – comprising 18 theatres – in Toronto’s Eaton Centre the path was set for the rapid erosion of moviegoing. The large American chains become instruments for Wall Street and like the projectionists, the showmen that used to run the theatres left the building.

Last week in London a screening of Gremlins occurred. The film’s director, Joe Dante, was in attendance. One thousand people, young and old came to re-visit a 30 year old movie. Increasingly innovative new showmen are arising using older titles to re-ignite the passion for movie going. The Pop-up phenomena has taken hold in the United Kingdom and is re-exciting people about movie going.

It is almost like these showmen have decided to abandon the rules set out by Hollywood and are letting the needs of the audience mandate what they show and when they want to see it. They are going through the library of classic titles and finding a more than willing audience. Theatres can have easy access to almost the DCP quality of Blu-Ray and can easily create an ongoing movie schedule and compels and interests the community it serves. With a little imagination movies can rise again. The sense of community, the oneness of watching a film with 300 of your closest friends and the feeling that when you walked into a movie theatre you were going to experience something special.

In the past I have mentioned The Historic ArtCraft Theatre as being a great model for community going. They still use two projectors and when they can, try to get acetate based prints. If movie theatres are churches, then The Historic ArtCraft Theatre is a Basilica….please check them out.

They are doing something very right……let’s rebuild the American moviegoing culture.