When motion pictures first flickered on screens, cities were concerned because the film was not flameproof. Fire safety prevailed, but for nearly 50 years theaters had two projectors and showed 35mm films that came in heavy cans. About every 20 minutes, the projectionist high above the balcony would wait for the cue mark, then, almost seamlessly, switch projectors.
About the time the multiplex era began, so did the evolution of a “platter” projection system that allowed a projectionist to splice the entire film together and run it from one projector without the every 20 minute change.
Junior Ross, who now works as the operations and maintenance man at the Keith Albee Performing Arts Center, started his career as a projectionist.
“I go all the way back to carbon arc. You had to make a changeover every 15 or 20 minutes. You had to be in the booth,” he said.
While he speaks of picture brightness and steadiness, Hollywood’s gradual digital transformation has a lot to do with “greening” the exhibition process. A digital film is about the size of a computer hard drive (or two laptop batteries).
Ross explained that the prints for 35mm films at non-digital theatres arrive weekly by truck normally in two or three heavy cans. The projectors themselves require lamps, oil and maybe some grease. Multiply this distribution method by 3,000, as each theatre playing a particular movie simultaneously must have a “print” delivered to them.
Digital projectors don’t require in Ross’ words “all the oil, seals and upkeep,” but the public sees “a much better solid picture. There’s no movement whatsoever.”
However, the majority of theaters, due to expense, still screen 35mm prints, as each digital projector costs around $100,000. If you have, for example, a theatre with 10 screens, that’s $1 million to convert.