Kerasotes Theatres doesn’t have any employees classified exclusively as projectionists. But aside from the occasional weekend fill-in shift as a manager, that’s about all Jonathan Leonard does for the company.
The hierarchy of Kerasotes Theatres can be seen in its employee uniforms.
On the front lines are ticket takers and popcorn makers. Both the men and women in these positions wear white dress shirts and black pants, with a black bow tie and a black baseball cap with a silver Kerasotes logo. Above them are shift managers, who are permitted to lose the hat and trade the bowtie for a necktie.
At the top of the heap are the full managers. They wear the same sort of attire you’d see at a bank or other office.
On a recent Wednesday night, Jonathan Leonard arrived to work wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt and New Balance tennis shoes. He ascended a staircase that leads to the ShowPlace West’s projection booth, which runs the width of the building.
Kerasotes doesn’t have any employees classified exclusively as projectionists. But aside from the occasional weekend fill-in shift as a manager, that’s about all Leonard does for the company.
His main work shifts are Wednesday and Thursday nights, the busiest time in projection booths across the U.S. While moviegoers sleep, new prints are assembled from multiple reels and loaded onto projectors; old prints are broken into pieces and sent away.
It’s a complex dance involving technology that’s nearly as old as the movie business. And the process has changed little in the past century — a projectionist from the first half of the 20th century would probably recognize many of today’s tools and techniques.
The job that night was to begin assembling prints of the movies opening that weekend: three copies of “Robin Hood” and two of “Letters to Juliet.”
The next night, Leonard would have to prepare four prints to send to Kerasotes’ nearby Parkway Pointe theater, and break down a copy of “Nightmare on Elm Street” so it could be boxed for shipment back to the distributor or another theater.
Piecing together a legend
“Robin Hood,” an origin story that tells how a humble archer becomes a legendary outlaw, opened on 3,503 screens last weekend, including three at the ShowPlace West.
Those three prints of “Robin Hood” arrived in six orange cases, each weighing 30 pounds and change. One print of the movie comes on eight reels and must be spliced together into the single enormous disc of film that will permit an uninterrupted screening of its 140-minute running time. Trailers — the short previews that advertise upcoming releases — must also be added to the beginning of the film.
Each reel or trailer is handled the same way: Leonard starts by unspooling the blank leader film at the beginning of the reel, then uses a tool to slice precisely two frames off the point where the movie actually begins.
The pieces are carefully taped together, then a machine rolls the latest reel onto the rest of the film. The process is repeated for each of the eight reels. In the end, “Robin Hood” plus six trailers plus one promo for the Dolby sound system amounts to a huge disk of film weighing more than 50 pounds.
At 140 minutes, a single print of “Robin Hood” takes up just shy of 2.4 miles of film.
Leonard needed about an hour to put it together.
Getting ready for showtime
Films are not fully loaded into projectors until shortly before it’s time for a movie to start. The first step is to clean the sprockets around the lens with a paintbrush, then a rag that had been treated with a lubricant at the start of the day. This is repeated before each screening.
The unwatched movie is coiled on its side on the take-out platter, one of three large silver disks stacked to the left of the projector. Any disk can feed the projector, and either of the other two disks can recoil the movie after it has passed in front of the lamp.
Starting from the inside of the reel, the film snakes around five spindles before it ever reaches the projector. Then it passes through a series of more than a dozen more spindles — past the lamp and lens, a head to read the digital Dolby sound information, a backup head to read analog sound and another to sense a marker that controls the lights in the auditorium.
The movie passes over five more spindles as it twists its way back to the take-up platter.
Six of the projectors are arranged so that one print can be shown in two screening rooms at the same time. The film would pass through one projector, travel across the room along pulleys attached to the ceiling, then down through another projector before being coiled up. This is generally only used for a huge midnight opening in which demand for tickets exceeded the number of available prints, as with the last “Harry Potter” movie.
For showing 35mm films, the ShowPlace West has a dozen Christie projectors in several different sizes. Each draws at least 90 amps, and the biggest are rated at up to 170 amps (by way of comparison, modern single-family homes are usually outfitted for 200 amps).
According to a website that sells the light bulbs — Christie Xenolites in varying sizes — prices range from more than $500 for the smallest (2,000 watts) up to $1,300 for the biggest (4,500 watts).
Changing the lamps is a major operation, with procedures that call for a face shield, gloves and a smock with two arms and a crotch flap. It looks like something an X-ray technician would wear, and it’s meant to protect the employee in the event one of the highly pressurized bulbs shatters.
Sometimes, when a movie doesn’t sell any tickets, the staff will “motor it through” anyway — that is, run the film through the projector but leave the lamp off. This procedure extends the life of the lamp. And if someone shows up 20 minutes late, the staff can switch the lamp on and allow the movie to pick up where it would have been without disrupting the entire schedule.
Once a film has been threaded, starting the movie is as simple as pressing a button. Unless something goes wrong, it’s automated after that.
One-man focus group
At 11:18 p.m. that Wednesday night, above the small screening room that hosted DisneyNature’s “Oceans” that week, Leonard pressed the green start button on “Robin Hood” print No. 5920. He walked down to the screening room and had a colleague keep an eye on the trailers while he grabbed a bag of popcorn and a soda from the concession stand.
Kerasotes likes to have employees screen every print before the public gets to see it, to make sure there are no problems with the film.
“All the movies you can watch” is a pretty good deal for people who like the artform — people like Leonard, who has a day job as an accountant in the state treasurer’s office.
“That’s kind of why I work here,” he said. Leonard, 30, has been employed by Kerasotes off and on since 1996, when he was hired at the now-defunct Esquire.
Throughout the screening, Leonard made notes by the light of his cell phone. Mostly he was marking the times of the reel changes as points of reference in case anyone has to do major surgery on the print in the future.
Midway through the film, manager Dennis Brasier, who was in and out of the screening, shot out of his chair and hurried out of the auditorium. A moment later, the screen went black and the lights came on.
Leonard knew Brasier must have spotted a factory splice — a byproduct of the film manufacturing process that leaves a seam in the middle of a frame. By the time he made it to the booth, Brasier was already manually unspooling the print, looking for the offending frame. Factory splices only last for 1/24 of a second, but Kerasotes cuts them out of every print.
For a culture trained to venerate film directors and their vision of a movie, it can be startling to realize pieces are cut from finished films as a matter of course. But Leonard said the removal of individual frames is undetectable to viewers.
“You could lose a couple feet of this stuff and never really notice,” Leonard said. “If it’s a big, heavy action sequence with a lot of jumping anyway, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t notice a couple feet being out. If it’s right in the middle of a sentence, there’s more of a chance that you’ll hear something than you’ll see it.”
The splice removed, the screening continued: Robin Hood resumed his fight against the tyrannical King John and there were no other errors. As the credits started to roll, the lights came on, like magic, activated by a piece of silver tape Leonard had attached to the print.
The Wednesday-night shift ended at 2 a.m. Thursday.
For the love of film
After putting in a full day at his accounting job, Leonard returned to the ShowPlace West on Thursday afternoon.
He assembled “Letters to Juliet” and screened the print that evening with Kristy Dorr, his fiancee.
“Robin Hood” and “Letters to Juliet” couldn’t be more different. “Juliet” is a romance about a group of women in Italy who answer letters addressed to the fictional Juliet of Shakespeare’s play. When a young woman discovers a letter that had been lost for decades, she contacts the correspondent, who decides to come to Italy to find her lost love.
When Brasier asked Leonard if he’d be willing to screen “Letters to Juliet,” Leonard joked that he’d be willing to “take that bullet.”
Watching all kinds of movies comes with the territory, and it’s one of the main reasons Leonard does the job.
He could only think of a handful of movies he screened in which he found no redeeming value — one was “Captivity,” the kind of gruesome splatter flick often referred to as “torture porn.”
“Man, was it awful,” Leonard said. It was also damaged: “We had to get a whole new print of that one because at least four out of the five reels had this weird yellow tint.”
But “Captivity” was a rare exception.
“I love movies, and that includes loving crappy ones sometimes. I’ll find a way to be entertained if I have to,” he said. “This is just fun up here. Plus, you get to see movies a day early — and they’ll pay you to.”
So after back-to-back screenings of “Robin Hood” and “Letters to Juliet,” which did he prefer?
Leonard, a man who spends a good amount of his free time participating in local professional wrestling shows, thought “Juliet” was the superior movie.
“I probably, honestly, got slightly more enjoyment out of it than I did out of ‘Robin Hood,’” Leonard said. “There’s only so much I’m going to get out of ‘Letters to Juliet’ — it’s not made for me. But I think teenage girls will get a pretty good amount out of it, without necessarily full-on insulting the people who have to go with them.
“As far as I’m concerned: good job. I’ll never watch it again — wasn’t happy to the first time — but you did what you’re trying to do.”
Brian Mackey can be reached at 217-747-9587.