The Weekly Moviegoer - An Appreciation for Projection Problems
by Christopher Campbell
May 11, 2009
For most people, projection snafus are annoying. If the film breaks, if the sound system fails, or if the projector fails to start up at all at its scheduled time, audiences become irritated with the delay of their entertainment and, most of all, worried that the problem will not be remedied quickly, or at all. But for me, these occasional glitches and projectionist mistakes can be almost as enjoyable as the movie itself. Maybe it's just me, because I've been a projectionist, in addition to the many positions I've held at movie theaters, but I think it has more to do with my appreciation for how strangely people act in times of incongruity.
I got to observe such awkward hilarity recently, when I went to see Treeless Mountain at NYC's Film Forum. The film broke just as the movie began; in fact, it happened immediately following the Oscilloscope production logo, so when the screen went dark it took awhile for the audience to realize that we weren't simply watching an extra long inclusion of black leader. When you're at an arthouse cinema, it's easy to assume a few minutes of nothing is actually intentional.
After a while, people started fidgeting. Some started playing with their cell phone or blackberry. Others patiently resumed doing whatever they had been doing before the trailers began: reading a newspaper, for example. A few people did the obligatory turn of the head to look up and back towards the projection booth window. Finally, an old man let out an extremely loud whistle. This was the kind of noise one would make to beckon their golden retriever to return from a distant part of a field. And yet, as intense as that attempted signal was, there's little to no chance that it did any good.
See, projection booths are not places where one can hear much of what's going on inside the auditorium. In order to monitor the sound of the movie, projectionists either have to open that little window and stick their heads out, or they turn a knob on the sound system console that plays the audio on a little speaker next to the projector. I'm not saying it's impossible for the Film Forum projectionist to have heard that man's whistle, but if he did there's a good chance he thought it was just part of the movie. The same goes for other attempts to get the attention of someone in the booth. Shouting, loud coughs, etc, as funny as they are to people like me, they're wasted efforts in these situations.
So, with that part of the process over and done with, the next step is for another member of the audience to get up and walk out of the auditorium to alert an usher or other member of the theater's staff. And without fail, immediately after that first person rises from his/her seat, another person, unassociated with that first, will follow suit. Why? I always figure that the second person assumes that first is coincidentally -- or, to make the best of the situation -- exiting the auditorium for a trip to the bathroom or concession stand. You know, because even if that were part of the truth, it wouldn't make sense for that first person to also pass on word of the film stoppage along the way. Anyway, the usual chain of events has that second person leaving the auditorium, while a third (and oftentimes a fourth, too) rises from his/her seat. But before that person(s) can also try and be the audience's savior, the first and second have returned with word that they've heroically brought the problem to the attention of someone out in the lobby, and everything is going to be just fine.
Of course, a staff member will also come in later to tell us that the film broke and it will only take a few moments for the projectionist to get our movie back up and running. Usually, a manager will make his/her way in soon after with a repeat of the film's status. By then everyone is definitely calmed down, right? Not completely. In fact, an audience's patience tends to be even more disrupted once it gets the official word. More than before, people are turning back and up to look at the projection window, perhaps to make sure there's actually someone on top of it and working hard. Just so everyone knows: if you can see the projectionist in that window, he's not splicing the film back together. But you can stare and stare and wait for him to appear, which he eventually will, most likely at the point that you should be looking forward, because the film will be back onscreen. And if that's not the case, then he probably doesn't know what the actual problem was, and you're in store for a dismissal of the audience and some re-admit tickets.
The above scenario may be occurring less and less these days, both because of digital projection and, if you're at a Regal cinema, new devices that may be used to alert management from within the auditorium. And for me that's a shame, because one of my favorite things about moviegoing is observing my fellow moviegoers when things go wrong. Am I cruel and unusual, or does anyone else enjoy this sort of experience, as long as the movie does ultimately resume?
By the way, I do not mean this as a complaint about the incident mentioned above, or of Film Forum's handling of the situation, and I'd just like to applaud the people working there for doing a great job getting the film back up and running in a timely manner.
Projection booth photo courtesy of Alix King on Flickr.