Stand in a multiplex on a busy Friday night and listen carefully. Every now and then an alarm goes off. It’s not a fire alarm; it’s too quiet. It’s the sound of screens warning the projectionist that something needs to be sorted. In the cinema I used to work in, it bleeped a lot.
But these days, there are fewer projectionists around to answer that call. As cinemas go digital and cut down running costs, they fire half the projectionists and operate the thing from the manager's office instead. Play, pause, on, off. That's pretty much all the skill it requires. <FACT>As of January this year, 63% of the world's cinema screens are now digital.</FACT>
Things still go wrong, though. We've all seen films displayed in the wrong aspect ratio. Some of us have been treated to 3D movies (incorrectly calibrated) that go green, pink and wibbly. Wibbly's a technical term. Once, because of problems with a digital projector, I had to sit through the opening 20 minutes of The Last Airbender TWICE. NO ONE should have to suffer that.
A day in the life of a projectionist
The projectionists that are lucky enough to still be in employment are busy running technical errands around the building, changing lightbulbs, etc. In a 15-screen multiplex spanning three floors, that's a lot of lightbulbs. So when something does go wrong, even if it only requires a touch of a button, there's often no one there to sort it out. Have you ever left a screen to tell a member of staff something's wrong with the projection? It takes 10 minutes to get the projectionist to the projector in the first place.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a pro-digital guy - as you know, if you read this thing in the Guardian, this bit at Little White Lies, or my general ramblings on the subject - but even if you don't romanticise the sexiness of celluloid, it's sad to be losing a trained profession that makes sure cinemas run smoothly. I spent many months pushing for an article to be published exposing the firing of projectionists and threats of union strikes, but to no avail.
That's why The Last Projectionist is such an interesting documentary to me. Directed by Tom Lawes, it charts the history of Birmingham's The Electric (the oldest working cinema in the UK - and one of my favourite places to watch a film) and shows the rise of digital projection in the face of 35mm.
Ironically, the film wouldn't have been possible without digital. Indeed, thanks to the lower production and distribution costs, it's great to see Lawes' film get a theatrical run across the UK after impressing us last year at the Cambridge Film Festival - the documentary is an absolute must for all cinephiles.
Read on for a list of cinemas where The Last Projectionist is showing in the UK and when. If you still need convincing, here's our original The Last Projectionist review - and our interview with director Tom Lawes.