When I was a teenager, more than a decade ago now (!), I worked at the Odeon Cinema in Hemel Hempstead.
It was while at that cinema, long before the days of single operators running the kiosk, tearing tickets and playing the film out – that I trained as a projectionist.
My actual job was working in the cinema itself – mainly either in the kiosk/Hagen Daz bar or at the box office – but I convinced the boss to let me train two days a week in the projection box.
The cinema had something that is lacking from most, if not all provincial cinemas now though – an actual team of projectionists.
There was the old pro that had been doing it for decades, the young buck just getting started and the jaded geek who was only doing it until something better came along.
And then there was me, two days a week getting a sample of this noisy, sometimes very active and fairly grubby environment – yes they did send me for elbow grease and a left handed screwdriver – no I didn’t fall for it.
Anyway I’m straying from the point of the article.
One of the first things I was shown, before lacing and splicing, before what all the bits and pieces do – was the theatre, the show.
To these guys playing a film wasn’t about lacing up and pressing play – it was a performance of light, sound and curtain up.
When I go to most cinemas now you sit in a comfortable chair with a cup holder and leg room and look at a white screen until the adverts start – then the film plays – then you leave.
Back when I trained I was told you have to dim the various lights at just the right time, in just the right order – fade up the sound, start the picture rolling and open up the curtains – timed perfectly.
Then as the adverts end – filmed in widescreen – and the trailers begin – in cinemascope – you repeat the process for the lense change.
You fade down the sound, fade up the music (music selection is a whole other story – as is me breaking Herculese), close the curtains and turn on the mid-lights.
Change the lense and then repeat the process in reverse to get the trailers started – you stay there until the film is playing and then you check on the other films.
With regularly 20 minute checks in between.
I haven’t experienced that in nearly a decade – the theatre of the film as I’ve only had access to a mainstream cinema chain staffed by multiskilled Customer Service and technical operators (or whatever the job title happens to be at the moment).
That was until I went to see The State of Play at the Empire Leicester Square.
The performance was back, there was an usher with torch to show me to my seat – which had a number. The lights and curtains did what I expected, all change for the lense with fading and raising.
Then there were staff standing by the door to say goodbye to me on the way out – THAT is the way cinema SHOULD happen.
OK so there was nowhere to put my drink and the leg room could have been a little more generouse – but the experience left me with a smile on my face – a smile the film only just contributed to.
I’ve seen three films this week – all with a BBC connection.
The first was in Birmingham at a generic Cineworld cinema – staff were pleasant, the environment modern and comfortable – the experience – efficient!
The film – In the Loop – one of the funniest comedies I’ve ever seen, a piece of comedy genius that left me longing for the up coming return of the series – The Thick of It.
The second was in London at the Vue West End and the experience was there although on a much smaller scale – it wasn’t a big budget or high profile film.
The staff were fine but it was daytime so not on their ‘customer service’ best. The cinema was alright – even if the seats felt more like airline seats and my drink didn’t fit in the holder. But it had a curtain that raised and lights that dimmed – it was sort of the worst of both worlds if I’m honest.
The film – FAQ about time travel – was funny, had a few good solid laughs and a slightly weird premise which made it interesting – there were two of us in the cinema and I think most people who might have enjoyed it will be put off by the title.
It’s a film that will do well when it hits the BBC as a television movie – it was a BBC Films and HBO Films co-production.
Then the final film was at the Empire Leicester Square and that was were my faith in the projectionists art was restored – secured in the knowledge that it is still happening – even if it is only at the flagship cinemas.
Thanks Empire – means a lot to me.
There is an Empire Cinema in Hemel Hempstead – my parents home town – so the next time I visit them I’ll have to make a stop off at the cinema to see if they’re keeping up the tradition that the Odeon (on the same site) before it held so important.
The trade-off we usually have to make with the cinema is comfort and convenience over experience and production.
Empire Cinemas seem to, at least in my limited experience of them – said ‘no, we won’t make that trade off – have comfort AND production’.
Oh and I’ll give Vue an extra thumbs up for the Pearl and Dean advert block instead of the three letter (I’m sure on of them is D) that appears everywhere else.
It just felt cool hearing the Pearl and Dean music.
NOTE: Main image cc by dan taylor