History Film Projection: Film’s Last Surge

Tech innovations made basics of 35mm projection easy and safe but also led to degraded prints

With digital cinema ready to send film projectors the way of vacuum tubes and phonograph turntables, let us give a final doff of our fedoras to the advances at the theater that created the final great boom of 35mm — and planted the seeds of its destruction.

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

Projectionists of Hollywood’s golden age had a busy and slightly dangerous job. A theater booth had two projectors, and every 20 minutes, at the end of the reel, the projectionist had to switch from one projector to the other, and thread the next reel. Every couple of hours or so he’d have to (very carefully) replace the carbon arclight rods that burned whitehot inside the projectors, providing light for the screen. Somewhere nearby a motor whirred constantly, inefficiently turning AC power into the direct current for the arc lights. A single movie on a single screen pretty much kept a projectionist hopping.

In the ’60s and ’70s, a trio of innovations inside the booth cleared the path for a Hollywood revolution. Electronics replaced motors for converting AC to DC, making it possible to feed DC power to more than one screen at a single location. Xenon arc lamps replaced carbon arcs and put a sealed, long-lasting bulb inside projectors. Since showing a film no longer needed two projectors, all the reels for a feature could be spliced together and kept on a platter. These seemingly small changes enabled a single projectionist to handle multiple screens. They birthed the multiplex and transformed the “booth” into a gallery with portals to many screens. Perhaps that’s why no one seems to hear when an audience member yells “Focus!” Odds are the projectionist is elsewhere in the gallery.

Multiplexes hastened the era of the ultra-wide release, with thousands of screens and thousands of prints. But with print orders skyrocketing and studios handing over their finished negatives ever closer
to release, Technicolor and Deluxe no longer had time to do a quality check on every print. Bad color and other print problems proliferated.

Tech innovations had made the basics of 35mm projection so easy and safe that a high-schooler could handle a multiplex. But they’d also led to degraded prints that left theater owners grumbling to distributors, even as distribs were looking for a way to curtail the cost of striking and shipping all those 35mm prints.

In the end, film became a victim of its own success.

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