The Weekly Moviegoer - Cinemas Should Be More Attentive
by Christopher Campbell
May 20, 2009
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.