On a recent afternoon, Somerville Theatre projectionist David Kornfeld was waiting for his cue.
Kornfeld peered out from the booth’s port window, watching the 35mm print of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and waiting for the small ring in the top right of the screen that signals when he needs to switch film reels. A standard reel holds only a portion of the film, so to run a full-length feature, the projectionist must thread the next reel through a second projector, hitting a button, pulling a lever, and flipping a switch at just the right moment to make the transition unnoticeable.
“The thing about this job is, if you do it right, it’s invisible,” said Kornfeld. “If you do it really right, you can make a big difference in how the movie is seen and heard. But it’s not perceptible to the majority of the audience who’s watching it.”
Once the switch was complete, he squatted next to the projector, looking at the movie through a pair of binoculars and marveling at the picture quality — the high contrast, vivid colors, and true blacks that only well-maintained analog film can produce. He carried the finished reel over to a bench to be rewound, handling it with a single white glove as the projector purred.
Kornfeld is a pro at executing these “changeovers” from reel to reel, but the recent history of film projection has been anything but seamless. About a decade ago, digital projection became the industry standard. It was more cost-effective for studios to create and ship lightweight hard drives instead of miles of film stock, so the vast majority of theaters ditched their analog projectors — and, along with them, many career projectionists.
“There’s been a permanent break in the continuity and the passing on of this knowledge,” said Kornfeld, who began his career as a projectionist in the 1970s. “Once something like that gets broken — really broken — it’s almost impossible to recover it or get it back.”
Even in the few local theaters that show film regularly — the Somerville, the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, and the Brattle in Cambridge — the lion’s share of movies are projected digitally. In the age of analog film, there were reels to inspect and machines to maintain. Digital, by contrast, requires little more than pressing “play” on a computer, so “there is not a lot of craft left to it,” said Chapin Cutler, a co-owner of Boston Light & Sound, which services many of the theaters in the Boston area that run celluloid.
“We’ve spent millennia sitting around campfires telling our stories,” Cutler said. “There’s something about the flickering of the fire that is somewhat analogous to the flicker of how film is transported through a projector — which does not exist digitally.”
While many film projectionists in the state have left the field — in 1992, there were 282; today, there are just 33 — there’s still the occasional new apprentice who will work with an established projectionist to learn the skills necessary to keep the craft alive.
But training these film projectionists requires film. Nick Lazzaro, the technical director at the Coolidge, said distributors are wary of sharing increasingly rare film prints with theaters, lest one be damaged. When a place like the Coolidge gets access to 35mm prints of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which is screening May 6-8, it’s because the theater is known to have skilled projectionists. “Your reputation is everything,” he said.
The “Cinema Paradiso” idea of a projection booth, Lazzaro said, is hardly the reality of the profession.
“There’s a romantic notion of what it is to be a projectionist,” he said, “and then there’s the job of being a projectionist.”
And the margin of error for rookie mistakes — par for the apprenticeship course — is narrowing. “If you have amateur night going on and somebody wrecks a print, forget getting more prints,” said Larry Shaw, a co-owner of Boston Light & Sound.
“We don’t show much film because we don’t have projectionists, but we don’t have projectionists because we don’t show much film,” said Coolidge projectionist Thomas Welch. “You kind of just have to just stay committed to it.”
Dave Leamon, who works three days a week as a projectionist at the Brattle, is worried about finding “new blood” for the booth — no candidates have panned out in the past few years. “Some people, they try it and they can’t handle the isolation, the noise, the darkness,” said Leamon. It took him about a year of running film solo to feel truly comfortable with it. “I had nightmares for the first couple of months,” he recalled. “It was like a horror movie. It was dark — the film was like a snake.”
The job has a steep learning curve, and full-time, well-paid work is elusive, said Adrianne Jorge, another projectionist at the Somerville. “You have to have a certain passion for it,” she said, “and I don’t know how many of the younger versions of us there are out there.”
Not to mention, younger projectionists could lack the direct connection with film that generations before them shared. John Quackenbush, who recently stepped down as the head projectionist at the Harvard Film Archive, said that recently he “had people in the projection booth that have never seen film.”
Still, there’s a unique camaraderie among projectionists past and present. “We often joke that we’re, like, the man — or woman — behind the curtain,” said Jorge. In the Brattle booth is a clipping that reads: “To the men behind the curtain.” In the original Coolidge booth, which has been around since the theater opened in 1933, the floor next to the projector is worn down lower than the rest of the ground, said Welch.
“It’s been generations and generations of projectionists standing in the same spot, operating the projector, all just trying to give folks a good show,” he said. “You very much feel part of that.”
Several projectionists said they fear a “boothless” future, where screens are controlled remotely from a central location. Others worry about projection ending altogether, with movie theaters adopting giant LED walls.
With the presentation of analog film, said Jorge, there’s the benefit of “a human being back there, making it happen for you.” One time, Jorge remembered, she repaired a broken projector belt in the middle of a show with a pair of pliers and a paperclip. When things go wrong on a digital projector, there is rarely the option to jury-rig a fix.
There are no easy fixes for the industry, either. “It’s possible film will hang in for a long time,” said Leamon, “but at a certain point, technology will just keep moving forward.”
At least in some theaters, celluloid is staging a bit of a cultural comeback. “Things on film are literally a selling point now,” said Lazzaro. When director Quentin Tarantino released his film “The Hateful Eight” in 2015, the 70mm screenings “were always sold out,” said Cutler.
“It may not be as crisp, and they have a scratch here or there,” said Leamon, “but it’s still film, and people appreciate that.”