PERSONAL ESSAY, NONFICTION
On the Best Job That No Longer Exists
Issue 5, Winter 2022
The best job I ever had was in the waning days of 35mm film projection at a cheap, six-screen mall movie theatre, the kind done up in garish family-friendly murals and rainbow colors, floors always a bit too sticky, seats in desperate need of replacing. The distinct odor of popcorn was so deeply infused in the carpet-covered walls that one might forgive patrons for skipping the concession stand out of olfactory disgust alone, if not the absurd prices—that nacho combo could really set you back!
I worked every meaningful position at that theater. Everyone started behind the concession stand, serving guests with a smile while sustaining regular abuse, a trial by fire. If you couldn’t hack it slinging popcorn, what good would you be in the business of film exhibition? Going home late each night after wearing out my elbow scrubbing down the popper, the unmistakable smell of sweat and stale popcorn wafted off my uniform as I tossed it over a chair in the bedroom, knowing I’d put it back on, unwashed, to do it all again tomorrow. For minimum wage and the sake of cinema.
From there, it was a promotion to usher: working the floor, sweeping, ripping tickets, sweeping, checking theaters for talkers and texters and outside food of course, sweeping, tidying the washrooms, sweeping. Did I mention the sweeping? And yet it was a definite promotion, because sweeping up popcorn and cups and nacho trays left behind by those unwashed masses, apparently unaware of the concept of trash cans, remained infinitely more appealing than having to actually sell those masses all that junk.
Next, the ticket booth. We had stools to sit on. Need I say more?
From the moment I started at the theater, I had my eye on one job. I wanted to be a projectionist. My love of cinema called me to it, and lucky for me those were still the days of 35mm film projection—the last days, but the days regardless. “It’s television in public,” Quentin Tarantino once said of the advent of digital cinema projection. “I came into this for film.” To project film is to understand what Tarantino meant. It is to know the art of cinema as a physical medium, something you can hold in your hand, that you can thread through the mechanical spokes and spools of a projector, to see the lamp light up, shining through lenses and celluloid to produce an image dancing on a screen meters away, delighting, terrorizing, entrancing, boring an audience. To be a projectionist is to be a magician in the dark; to be an intrinsic part of the movies. And that’s where I wanted to be. It’s where I still want to be, if I’m being honest.
I learned the trade from the theater’s lead projectionist, a man with a similar love for movies and the mechanical magic by which they lived and breathed, and for me it was more than merely another job. I hoovered up everything my mentor could teach, learning the ins and outs of the big platter system projectors, troubleshooting my way through mishaps, fine-tuning my skills. I kept time on my projector threading, challenging myself to get everything ready and checked and double-checked for the next show as fast as possible.
And I enjoyed being alone with nothing but the sound of motors and intermittent shutters. When I didn’t have to splice together the reels of a new release or break down a movie being sent back to the distributor, the job was as simple as threading each projector and starting them at the appointed times. The rest of the time was my own, to watch the movies through the small booth window or do schoolwork or play games on my phone or take secret naps, all with that hum in the background, that majestic hum.
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The single best day of my working life came in that multiplex projection booth. I’d brought a book, as I’d often done to pass the time. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. It was my first time reading the novel, and after getting the first shows of the day threaded and started, I dived in, committing myself to finishing it before the end of my double shift. I launched into my actual job with uncommon diligence, threading each projector immediately after a movie ended, giving myself the space and ease of mind to continue reading even as I was starting screenings. Check the projector, start it up, make sure it was framed and in focus, back to my book. I don’t remember what movies were playing that day, it didn’t matter, everything went off without a hitch, a perfect work day. And I finished the book. So it goes.
Not every shift was so painless or so perfect. My first time working solo was uniquely disastrous. It was opening weekend for “Spider-Man 3,” a packed house for an evening screening. I started the show, it all seemed fine. And then it wasn’t. The projector stopped a few minutes in and a beeping sounded through the halls, warning me of a problem. The film was pulled tightly around the center console of the platter system in a malfunction I’d soon learn was called a “brain wrap”—if you know what a brain wrap is, then surely you share in the horror I felt in that moment. As I attempted to wrangle the problem, oblivious to its cause, another show went down in similar fashion. It was the Curtis Hanson drama “Lucky You,” starring Eric Bana and Drew Barrymore. You’d be forgiven for not remembering it. I only do because how could I forget? The day was eventually saved thanks to frantic phone calls and another projectionist who lived close by, but the nightmares have never left me.
I was gone after a few years, out of the movie theater, on to “bigger” and “better” things. Just in time, too, as most theaters switched to digital projection and the role of projectionist ceased to exist. It’s all servers now, the pleasing flutter of film replaced by the monotonous drone of electronics, unattended, with a hookup directly to the manager’s office. No pimply teens responsible for massive mechanical machines needed. Everything preset, operable with the click of a mouse, controlled by a computer: ease and consistency achieved, but the romance dead. Gone is the tactile foundation of film, its exhibition reduced to spinning hard drives feeding unmanned projectors spitting out pixel-perfect images for audiences increasingly interested only in the next episode of their favorite superheroes’ adventures. Television in public.
The psychic toll of this shift in the very form of cinema is reflected in the habits of moviegoers, presenting an existential dilemma for the medium, for the art itself. As COVID continues to pummel the exhibition industry and audiences turn to streaming, the appeal of another digital screen—but bigger!—has started to lose its sheen. But for me it’s personal, like mourning for the cinema I knew. I long to be back in that booth, literally touching the art that’s meant so much in my life, carefully pulling the celluloid through the twists and turns of the clockwork mechanism, fitting it into the sprockets and snapping the gate down, smelling the oil and metal and plastic. I feel the heat as that xenon lamp starts to burn and watch the gears spin into life as I look through the window to the auditorium below, playing my magic trick for an audience entranced by the spectacle of 24 frames per second. I long for that electric satisfaction, kept company in solitude by the din of the projector, the sound of the movies.
Corey Atad is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in Esquire, Pacific Standard, Vice, Slate, Mic, Hazlitt and more. Corey lives and plays in Toronto.