EDITORIALS

The Weekly Moviegoer - Cinemas Should Be More Attentive

by
May 20, 2009

Projection Booth

In latest week's column, I took a break from my usual complaints about movie theater operations in order to take a jab at the audience. But I meant not to appear apologetic of projectionists or to come off so passive regarding projection snafus. Despite my amusement with the way moviegoers react in certain situations, I definitely never consider it a moviegoer's fault for how long it takes for a problem to be remedied, and I definitely don't consider it a moviegoer's responsibility to take charge of these situations. While I may have in the past declared poor customer service to be the biggest problem in the movie theater industry, I believe careless and inattentive projectionists are a viable contender for that dishonorable position as well.

The reason projection problems rank a (very close) second as an issue in my mind is that they may actually fall under the heading of customer service. Especially since most projectionists these days are theater managers or ushers who work only some of their shifts in the projection booth; the crossover of projectionist to the field of customer service representative is all the more apparent. In many ways this is a major problem in of itself. In my time as a manager-projectionist, I found myself forced to help out on the floor of the theater when it was busy. So I could obviously not adequately monitor the exhibition of the movies, because I was helping out at the concession stand. If there was a snafu with one of the projectors, it wasn't always easy for me to get away from one task to get back to the other.

On the other side of the spectrum, many manager-projectionists are as lazy and invisible as the rest of the management staff. If you don't see any managers on the floor, where they should be most of the time, they're possibly watching television, reading magazines or on the web, behind the closed doors of an office. And the manager-projectionist on duty is probably doing the same when he/she isn't threading up the machines. This isn't to say all professional (i.e. union) projectionists are any more attentive; at one arthouse cinema I worked at as a manager, a projectionist would very often take naps in a far corner of the booth. And he even typically fell asleep while smoking a cigarette (thankfully, film prints are no longer as flammable as they once were).

I've actually, surprisingly, started growing fonder of the idea of manager-projectionists, because it helps to have as many people familiar with projection as possible in a cinema. This way, if the projectionist on duty is out getting dinner or in the bathroom or something, there are others who can remedy any problems that occur while he/she is unavailable. But one thing is certain: someone needs to be in that booth at all times, regularly checking on the projection in each auditorium.

One of the most convenient pieces of equipment in a projection booth is the timer, which can be set for a film's scheduled starting time, and which triggers the projector to run on its own. This certainly helps when a projectionist has more than a dozen auditoriums to manage, but it shouldn't be taken advantage of as much as it is. Particularly in the first few minutes of a projector's run, someone should take a look through the window of the auditorium to make sure there's a picture onscreen, that it's framed correctly and in focus, that it's the correct film (not a horror flick when there should be a cartoon), that there is sound coming out of the speakers, and anything else necessary for that specific film's exhibition. And someone should make the rounds in the booth, repeating that initial monitoring, at least two more times throughout each film's run to make sure everything is still okay. It's not fair to leave everything be and just wait for an audience member to alert someone of a problem, because it's not that customer's job, and there's a good chance that nobody will get up to make a complaint anyway.

Coincidentally, and ironically, in the same week that I posted that last column making fun of moviegoers' reactions to projection problems, I experienced some of the worst film exhibition I've ever sat through. I went to see the Oscar-nominated documentary The Garden at a little arthouse cinema in Brooklyn Heights, NYC, and not only did the sound continually cut out, but the framing of the picture was off significantly enough that most of the film's subtitles were not on the screen.

Did any of the six or so audience members get up and complain? No, because The Garden is the kind of film that you don't want to get up during, and you shouldn't have to miss anything anyway due to something that is the cinema's fault. There should have been a manager, projectionist, or some other person at the theater paying attention to both the projection and sound, at least once during the 80 minute film, because that's the kind of thing we six or so customers paid our $10 for. And this is specifically the kind of bad customer service and bad projection problems that will keep us from paying our $10 to that same cinema again.

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  • Josue
    I recently began working at a movie theater for the first time. I am aiming for the title of projectionist, but right now I am but an usher. I plan to keep your view on this subject in my mind, because all you have stated will make for a better movie going experience. Plus, if I make sure my work ethic is like this, I can get to projectionist faster 😉
  • Bad projection is a real bug bear of mine. There has been at least 6 or 7 times when I've had to go out and find someone to complain about how the sound was wrong, the image being cut off at the top or bottom or even it not being properly focussed. The worst one though was two seperate occasions at a local Odeon (whose strapline I might add is Fanatical about Film) where the films were shown with white bars vertical bars at each edge of the screen. The white edges being the actually film screen canvas. When I quizzed someone about it at the end he had the audacity to tell me that some films were being now made in 4:3 as opposed to them having made an error. I just laughed and walked away.
  • dave13
    so I saw Star Trek twice, in two different theaters. the first time, I was very confused as to why the titles barely fit on the screen. then i saw it elsewhere, and saw the edge of the screen blinds move out before they began projection of the film. and the titles this time fit! go figure.
  • Nick
    As a former projectionist I can attest that projectionists may be the most picky when trying to watch a movie on the big screen. Even slight shadows or being only a little out of frame can ruin the movie, or at least be irritating enough to bother me through the movie. Not all projectionists are lazy though, try and pay attention the next time you see a movie that was flawlessly presented. I've done that a few times and I realized how much more I enjoyed the movie itself.
  • Tom
    One thing I HATE the most is when there is something on the screen (stain, tear, gummybear...). This happens a lot and even at top quality theaters. Why don't theaters take care of their screens? It almost ruins the whole movie for me -- takes a while for me to ignore it.
  • a
    I completely agree but you have to be understandable. It all depends on what theater you go to. Smaller theaters should have no problems what so ever. But bigger theaters do have little problems; 1) unless the theater is all digital, they're still working with 35mm film which eventually wears down and is easy to make mistakes with no matter how good the projectionist. 2) with our current economy and many companies cutting down, it is hard to keep the amount of employees needed to constantly check the projectors and not be required to help on the floor, especially when the gm is breathing down your neck to save payroll. 3) Many problems that occur, cannot be fixed by the projectionist. Since they are not unionized anymore, many of the real technical problems fall to seperate engineers that work the whole region not just one theater. 4)How many movies a week do you go to? If you see every movie, how many times are there problems? 1 out of 10? In my experience, i have had more problems/scratched dvds from blockbuster. I do agree that if there is a problem brought to the staffs attention then it should be immediately fixed. A customer should never have to ask twice. And there definitely should not be minor problems like framing or focus on any movie because that should be checked when its first started. The main reason for these minor annoying problems is the 16 year old kids, theaters hire. But what responsible knowledgeable adult would work for minimum wage? So basically, if there is a problem, be understandable and patient. More often than not it will be fixed quickly. If not, then complain and get a free movie pass and remember all the good times before :) And always remember, movie theaters are a multi billion dollar industry, they dont need six peoples $10 when there are thousand of other customers waiting in line while you complain.
  • I am a projectionist, we've got IMAX and Digital besides 35mm. We aim at high-quality projection. Though sadly, things do go wrong from time to time. The real problem, in my opinion, lies with the managments of the cinema's. They are willing to cut every dime they can, and even more. They are putting impropper personel in the projection booths for a lesser paygrade. Besides the limited options we have, it is really demotivating the team. Management does completely nothing/zero to motivate the team. And believe me (although we are not little children) it is very important for most company's to have a motivated team working for them. Cinema's here in The Netherlands work mostly with teenagers around 16-22. They want cheap personel, but they also want 200% quality and all. They put extra responsibility on the projectionists but we don't see our salary go up. Then there are the managers that have allmost no clue what we are doing the whole day. They really think we read magazines all the time. For the record, we don't.
  • "a": I truly believe it is your type of apologetic attitude that is slowly killing the movie theater business. I'm understanding to a degree, but I want you to do a better job, not tell me to be a better customer.
  • Right on Chris!
  • bozoconnors
    Yeah... been quite a while since I've experienced any "technical" glitches. Quite happy with my local Regal. No digital or IMAX yet, but I'll take it. Good management I assume.
  • a
    The decline of theaters has nothing to do with customer service. It is mainly due to less good quality movies being released and home entertainment becoming bigger and better every year. If you have a bad trip to mcdonalds do you think your complaining will change anything? Not likely. But I do agree that apologetic management is horrible and an easy way to avoid complaints. As a customer I agree with you 100% As a manager I was simply providing an arguement since a lot of the articles you write is bashing theaters on a web page that promotes movies and theaters. If poor management is a factor in the movie theater decline. Then maybe publicly bashing is as well. Just an arguement. I love first showing :)

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