|Philippe Noiret in ‘Cinema Paradiso’|
|Buster Keaton in ‘Sherlock Jr’|
Why? Because projectionists as we imagine them are on the verge of extinction. This is down to big changes in the world of exhibition: hulking hard drives – to which films are sent digitally – are being installed in cinemas, while tactile, scratchy, buzzing celluloid film prints are being tossed on the scrapheap.
We spoke to a spokesperson for Odeon who explains that the chain is in the middle of replacing 35mm projectors at all its 110 sites across the country with digital projectors. At the Cineworld chain, a projectionist tells us that the switch-over is just as rapid. Phil Clapp of the Cinema Exhibitors’ Association explains the difference: ‘While a 35mm projector is a mechanical device with moving parts, a digital projector – aside from the lamp – is very much a piece of IT. Projectionists who have been able to strip down and reassemble a 35mm projector with their eyes closed are suddenly being presented with a box and an on-off switch.’
The roots of the digital takeover can be traced back to 2005, when 240 digital projectors were given to UK cinemas on the back of the UK Film Council’s Digital Screen Network initiative. The hope was that on the back of that initial flurry, the training wheels could come off and cinemas would embrace the digital revolution. They didn’t. The momentum of change was slow. Now, though, the digital boom has finally happened, partly fuelled by the spiralling number of 3D titles, which can’t be projected on old equipment.
David Hancock of industry website Screen Digest illustrates the speed of change. ‘In 2009 there were 650 digital screens in the UK. By 2010, there were 1,400, with 1,080 of them enabled for 3D. In 2010, 416 films were released wholly or partly on digital prints in the UK, which is 80 per cent of all releases. This is by far the highest number in the world. It compares to 20 per cent in France and 35 per cent in the Netherlands.’
This means that gone are the days when a tired old print starts to show up scratches and other signs of wear and tear. Audiences will barely notice the difference: every film will look like new. The real effect on film-going may be more long-term as cinemas take advantage of cheaper technology to offer a more flexible, varied programme or find it difficult to show certain films, mostly archive titles, which have not been transferred to digital.
It’s easy to romanticise the end of 35mm projection. According to Clapp, a lot of veteran projectionists have taken this revolution as a cue to retire. Celluloid purists remain, but hard economics is their biggest stumbling block. Digitisation calls for fewer people in the projection box, so cinemas can switch to digital and reduce their overheads. Yet Clapp is still optimistic that a role exists for projectionists in a post-35mm world.
‘We still need people to make sure films are projected correctly, at the right time and on the right screen. But they will take on other roles. Digital allows cinemas to host one-off events like screenings of live opera or theatre, and these events have their own demands on staff.’