Jobs Jolted by Celluloid Sayonara

Film print distribution down, collateral damage

As print distribution winds down, collateral damage includes projectionists, shippers and film suppliers, but some companies have planned ahead

The end of print distribution of films brings with it not just the close of an era, but also the potential loss of livelihood for many who work both inside and outside of the entertainment industry.

(From the pages of the April 16 issue of Variety.)

According to the latest report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (from March 29), more than 125,000 people are employed in the movie exhibition business, from ushers and lobby attendants to theater projectionists, the latter of which add up to 7,530 employees. Using the current 40,000 domestic screen count and the total number of employees in the theater business, on average, three people are employed per screen in North America.

However, the number at single-screen houses is roughly four to five employees per screen. Once the digital transition is complete, a projected 2,000 screens (of the 5,677 remaining non-digital ones) could shutter, according to one exhibition executive, which could put up to 10,000 theater staffers out of work, based on the four-to-five employee average.

At theaters, the rise of digital means the decline of the old-school projectionist and the rise of the theater manager. Projectionists already have far less to do in multiplexes than they’d had in single-screen theaters of yore. But they still sometimes needed to repair a broken projector or print. Now that projectors are electronic, theater managers run the show — and get on the phone with tech support when gremlins rear their heads.

SEE MORE: Filmmakers Lament Extinction of Film Prints

National delivery services such as FedEx and UPS also will lose significant business, though that biz has been dwindling steadily since theaters began converting to digital over the past five years.

No company embodies the rise and fall of film, though, more than Kodak and its hometown of Rochester, N.Y.

George Eastman’s 1888 invention of flexible photographic film made motion pictures possible. Kodak was considered the Apple of its day, and made more than a few Rochestarians millionaires. (Local legend holds that young George pestered his father’s friends to invest in his photography company, and those who relented became rich.)

Eastman himself wasn’t much interested in the motion picture film business — until he saw British competitor Blair cashing in on the nascent biz by selling his wares to early moviemakers.

Eastman’s company (not yet named Kodak) jumped in and became the dominant supplier of film stock for more than a century. Its stock traded at $80 in 1999, about the time motion picture printmaking peaked.

SEE MORE: Victim of Its Success: Film’s Last Surge Plants Seeds of Its Demise

Today Kodak is bankrupt, its stock is trading at around 30¢ and its name is off the Hollywood and Highland building, now dubbed the Dolby Theater. The company has shed tens of thousands of workers, and while it still depends on the printstock business, it can see that the window for that business is closing.

“I don’t anticipate us working on a new print stock,” says Wayne Martin, Kodak’s film manufacturing-flow manager. He maintains that there’s still a strong pitch to be made for shooting on film or archiving on film, but “from a release print standpoint, there’s less of an argument that film print is a long-term, better viable option than digital.”

Technicolor and Deluxe have made more successful transitions to the digital era, shrinking their legacy film businesses as they both anticipated the end of 35mm.

In fact in July 2011, Technicolor struck a deal with Deluxe, its bitter rival for most of the past century, to handle film printing for its clients. “In my mind at the time, that was the beginning of the end,” says Claude Gagnon, Technicolor’s creative services president. “We started to see a pretty massive decline in volume. We were pretty clear that volume would disappear very quickly.”

Technicolor’s last print plant, in Glendale, mostly strikes Imax prints. Its former North Hollywood location has been repurposed by Universal as a television production studio. And there appear to be no buyers for developers and printers, once absolutely critical to the business, so they’ve been scraped.

SEE MORE: As Film Labs Wind Down Prints Business, Job of Preservation Falling to Archivists

Deluxe, which went through a round of layoffs during the first week of April, will experience more cuts June 1, just before it slashes its printing schedule from a 24/7 operation to just one shift Monday through Friday.

Gagnon admits that there’s plenty of nostalgia for film at Technicolor: “It’s in our DNA,” he says.

But his company and Deluxe have invested in digital services, including computer-generated visual effects, aiming to stay engaged with filmmakers all through production and post — just like the old days.

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  1. Jesse Skeen says:

    This article is inaccurate- official “projectionists” have already been gone from chain theaters for more than 25 years. Running film was part of assistant managers’ duties at many multiplexes, and many of them had no idea what they were doing, leading to damaged prints and inexcusable presentation problems! While I don’t think digital looks as good as film done properly, it’s more difficult to screw up than film.

  2. Jeffry Johnson says:

    Is the Technicolor Glendale plant mentioned above the same plant featured in the following news story from last month?

    This Technicolor facility processes most of the 65mm footage and 70mm prints for the giant screen industry. With this closing Fotokem in Burbank will be the only remaining processor of 70mm negatives and prints in North America.,0,5911659.story

    Technicolor to close Flower Street facility less than two years after opening it

    Technicolor Inc. plans to close down its Flower Street facility in Glendale and lay off 50 employees by March 28, less than two years after opening the location, according to a recent state filing.

    Plans for the layoffs and closure, filed with the California Employment Development Department, will shutter the 40,000-square-foot lab where the company moved roughly 100 film-processing jobs in July 2011.

    Technicolor opened the facility after closing a North Hollywood location earlier in 2011.

    The Glendale site was seen as a natural choice because of the city’s push to rent out industrial properties in the San Fernando Road Creative Corridor to companies in the entertainment industry and because of its proximity to DreamWorks Animation and Walt Disney Co.’s Creative Campus.

    Technicolor provides visual effects, animation and post-production services for motion pictures, television shows and other media clients.

    The company laid off 50 employees at the Flower Street facility in January 2012, less than a year after it opened.

    While Technicolor representatives declined to comment on Wednesday, Don Nakamoto, executive director of the Verdugo Workforce Investment Board, said the city assisted with the previous downsizing and was aware that Technicolor is going through a period of instability.

    Nakamoto said as the entertainment industry shifts to digital video rather than film, traditional film-processing firms are getting squeezed.

    “Working with film is just so much more costly compared to digital, so [companies] are trying to come up with a model in this new world of entertainment,” he said. “It’s been that way for a number of post-production companies, and Technicolor is not immune to that situation.”

    The company has another facility in Glendale on Gardena Avenue as well as locations in Burbank and Hollywood.

    City spokesman Tom Lorenz said Glendale officials aren’t expecting the property to sit unoccupied for long because the vacancy rate for industrial properties in the San Fernando corridor is less than 1%.
    Follow Daniel Siegal on Google+ and on Twitter: @Daniel_Siegal.

  3. Richard J. Anobile - Associate Producer/Toronto says:

    In my estimation, what is going to be vitally important to the successful creative transition from film to digital will be post facilities maintaining some of their older film colorists working with younger colorists in order not to lose the ‘creative memory’ of the look film brought to cinematography. As we move more and more into digital, that creative memory can be used to ensure that the transition is not too stark while allowing younger colorists to “train’ – so to speak – with those who perfected the art of film timing. Then, as those younger colorists evolve, they will embrace first a hybrid look approach and eventually evolve an original digital color language that will be all of digital but still sprout from a sense of celluloid timing. No one ever walks into a digital suite asking for a video look, most creatives still approach their digital work thinking in film references and while we should not hamstring future stylistic approaches with only a film look approach, we should at least ensure that we don’t lose that filmic part (corporate memory so to speak) of our color vocabulary.

  4. Marny Shuster says:

    I got a lot out of this article and enjoyed reading it. Thank you.
    Marny Shuster

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