Becoming a projectionist
February 17, 2006 7:47 PM   Subscribe

Is there a direct route to becoming a projectionist? What is the pay like?

I have some interest in working as a projectionist. Really though, beyond someone just working their way up in movie theatre jobs, I'm not sure how one gains the know-how and lands the position of being a projectionist.

Also, I know there's a union but I'm not really sure what the pay is like. I'm sure it varies, but I'm really just wondering.

I'm in the NJ/NYC area.
posted by defenestration to Media & Arts (8 answers total)
I'm not a projectionist, or even in the movie business, but I am deeply involved in motion image transport technology, and I recommend that you start learning about digital cinema. Last year's final DCI spec (PDF, 1.1 MB, 176 pages!) is an excellent, exhaustive document that describes how the world will look to the projectionist of the future. In short: digital projectors, data servers, satellite receivers ... and screening events that we can only imagine right now (think "Super Bowl live in 4K high def"). Right now DC is about where DVDs were in 1996.

That said, it would certainly be good to get involved in plain old film projection -- it'll be around for at least another decade yet. There are basic principles that apply to any theatrical presentation technology.
posted by intermod at 8:29 PM on February 17, 2006

Here in Canada, the unions have been broken and the job is on its way to becoming skill-less. My wife's father was a third-generation projectionist. He was locked out for ages, years I think, and eventually left the profession. A low-paid teenager now does his job. The turnover is high.

These new projectionists make mistakes and do a comparatively poor job, but few audience members really knows enough to complain (myself included). Roger Ebert complains about this now and then.

As for digital technology, I doubt it's going to make the front-line work in theatres more highly-skilled, any more than our advanced players at home require more know-how. That's just a suspicion though. But if I were a theatre owner, that's the type of technology I'd want.
posted by Yogurt at 9:16 PM on February 17, 2006

Maybe you could find some small independant cinemas and talk to them?
posted by tomble at 9:42 PM on February 17, 2006

film-tech is the place to go to learn anything about film projection. I'll bet someone in the forums can be of help.
posted by darkness at 11:20 PM on February 17, 2006

I used to work at a small independent movie theatre in (non-union) NC. Our projectionists were just employees who worked their way up from popcorn maker. Some of them did a pretty bad job. Our manager had learned projection in NYC, where he had to join the union, but I think he worked his way up there.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:07 AM on February 18, 2006

I worked at movie theaters when I was a teenager (late 80's, early 90's), at one of the big chain theaters. The projectionists were actually just the ushers. There was no distinction. And they got paid minimun wage just like the rest of us.
posted by kimdog at 5:01 AM on February 18, 2006

I know that the small independent theaters in my hometown are 100% union; I can ask their projectionist next time I see him. It seems like he makes a decent living; he has also mentioned the transition to digital being a pretty big deal.
posted by sluggo at 6:22 AM on February 18, 2006

I've worked as a projectionist in a multi-plex, in a small one screen semi-theater projecting 16mm prints, and currently help run two digital projectors for a post house (DCI specs and all).

Basically, you will most likely have to work your way up through movie theater usher. Running a projector is something that can really only be learned in a hands on environment. Just try to find a theater that has a high turnover rate and spend as much time as possible in the booth. You could try to befriend a projectionist and learn, but we tend to gravitate to dark, lonely rooms for a reason.

I wouldn't worry too much about the union. I lived (and projected) in upstate NY for a while and asked about the union and everybody just kinda shrugged it off. Of course, it might be a bit stricter in the city.

Also, you should know, being a projectionist is rather boring. Especially if you and your equipment are any good, since once the film is running, you're set (and the movies do get boring, even the really great ones).

Digital Cinema is another league. You probably won't run into a lot of this for awhile, and I disagree with Intermod on how long film projectors will be around. Most theaters will not replace all their projectors for quite some time, leaving anybody with film handling/projecting experience in relatively decent shape (again this may not apply directly to you, as you live in the metro area that will probably be the first or second market to make the full switch). D-cinema is will gain ground fast, but it won't come close to wiping out all film for a long time.

As for pay, it's not good. I'd recommend considering taking it on as a second job as it leans naturally towards a night shift anyways.
posted by dogwalker at 7:14 AM on February 18, 2006

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