A Hollywood job fades to black: Film projectionist

Old film projector.

Ever since the Great Recession started more than five years ago, Americans have paid closer attention to how we bring in a paycheck every two weeks. But the American labor market started changing long before the financial crisis. Today we're starting a new series on Marketplace called "Disappearing Jobs" to examine the changing job market.

For the last 40 years I've been a motion picture projectionist. A film projectionist.

A friend of mine was managing a sleazy old theater called the Vagabond Theater and said "our projectionist just quit. Go in there and run it."

I didn't care about getting paid, I just wanted to go in there and do it. So for $3.50 an hour, I taught myself. I found a stable union job and I was told by my older peers that I could probably keep this job forever. I would never have to retire because it didn't require physical labor, it just required your know-how on the equipment.

Everybody in America went to the movies every week, so we were important. Also, "projectionist" was listed as the highest-paid industrial job in California. I like to remind people of that now that they're trying to pay us nothing.

Digital movies drive change
My favorite quote is still the studio executive who said "we have a robust system and we can pay any idiot $5 an hour to run it."

So why do away with the film projectors? The reason is everyone loves new technology, and now they have it.

I still intend to be the last projectionist alive. But it will be a real accident if I get more jobs.

About the author

Lee Sanders is a motion picture projectionist based in Los Angeles.
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@Bill P. & @JW Henry Ford runs the 70mm film version of IMAX (or at least it used to). It's currently closed for maintenance (digital upgrade?). The film version of IMAX is difficult to run and maintain. The job of projectionist is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Jw I also work at a theatre that is all digital, and my position was eliminated (presentation manager) becuase of the transition to all digital. The job you describe as projectionist is not really a projectionist position, as anyone can check signals and equipment operation. It sounds like the 'head usher' position took over the projectionist spot. Do your projectionists do repairs or change lamps? @hackmann What company do you work for? I might want to send my resume to them. I was a projectionist for more than 20 years.

What about the new super wide screen and 3-D projections? It's been at least two years since I enjoyed a regular screening at Greenfield Village (' The Henry Ford ') in Dearborn, MI but as I recall there was a living projectionist in that booth (with one glass wall like a large living display).

The overall number of 'projectionists' may be down - and 'apprentice' applications similarly on the wane - but there will probably always be a market. I understand Lee's dedication though. For some 40 years now there has been a reasonably substantiated rumor that the last projectionist, - who passed at his post in the movie theater in Northville, MI (now restored but showing largely kids' stage productions) - is sill frequently seen in the old booth or passing silently up or down the narrow stairs to his post. To paraphrase Gen. McArthurs' 2nd most famous quote: "Old Projectionists never die - they just quietly fade away" - though apparently not completely.

Although FILM projecting is declining, as those film projectors are getting replaced by digital ones, projectionists in general aren't totally out of jobs. I work at an all-digital theater and we have projectionists. Their projecting-related duties include walking around checking for status signals and making sure the electronic equipment is running properly. Besides that, at our theater the projectionist has replaced the position of "Head Usher" which involves coordinating the ushers (which mostly do daytime janitorial duties here) so that theaters get cleaned quickly after screenings to prepare for the next showtime and ushers get their required breaks at a reasonable time. During downtime, projectionists often act as floaters to help out at the concession stand and to clean theaters and do daily chores alongside ushers.

Think outside the booth! Film projectionists might be a job market in slump, but not in the Audiovisual Rental & Staging market! We hire skilled projectionists all the time to set up large commercial-grade projectors for conventions, trade shows, and corporate events.

What company do you work for? I was a projectionist for more than 20 years. I might send in my resume.

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