His last picture show: What does the rise of digital film mean for those behind the reels?

A cinema without a real projectionist is simply a 'sweet shop with a video', says one critic. Tim Walker meets a 35mm survivor.

The Last Projectionist Standing has stood down. After more than 30 years in the West End, Dave Norris left his job as projection manager of The Empire, Leicester Square in May. The first film he screened to the public was The Empire Strikes Back, in 1980. His last was the recent premiere of Snow White and the Huntsman. Norris was the longest serving projectionist left in London's major cinemas. Hence "The Last Projectionist Standing": a nickname awarded by his peers, and popularised by the BBC's film critic, Mark Kermode.

In 2005, the UK Film Council installed digital projectors at 240 UK cinemas. In 2009, as digital 3D was rolled out, the number of digital cinema screens in the UK more than doubled to 1,400. And in 2010, 80 per cent of UK releases were digital prints. Last year, most of the projectionists at the Odeon Leicester Square retired or were made redundant, replaced by automated projection. Odeon confirmed in February that 120 had seen their jobs cut across its cinemas; the other 250 are being "retrained" for different roles: selling popcorn, maybe.

Norris, who has left the Empire to take charge of the in-house screening rooms at Universal Pictures' London HQ, became emblematic of his dwindling profession when he appeared in Kermode's bestselling 2011 book, The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex. Projectionists are the critic's cause célèbre: "A building without a projectionist is not a cinema," says Kermode. "It's a sweet shop with a video."

Norris, who is 49, grew up in east London. His parents bought him his first Standard 8 projector – and a copy of Hawaiian Holiday, a 1937 Mickey Mouse short – when he was five years old. Long before the advent of VHS, he was collecting movies and screening them in his bedroom. The family's local cinema was the Granada Walthamstow, built in the 1930s. "I used to live there," he says. "Although I was thrown out many times by a commissionaire called Ernie – one of those old boys who'd gone there to get a job on VE Day and stayed 40 years. I've met lots of people like that in the industry. Now I'm one of them."

The first film he recalls seeing that wasn't a Disney or Carry On title was Goldfinger. Norris nagged his parents to buy the soundtrack, and it turned into a lifelong hobby. Before he replaced them with CDs, he had a collection of around 1,000 vinyl soundtrack albums. He's still a Bond fanatic: he wears an Omega watch like 007, and his mobile phone uses Monty Norman's Bond theme.

After a few years, he bought himself a Super 8 projector with sound, and would invite his friends around to watch the 20-minute digested cuts of Jaws and Star Wars that were the height of home cinema at the time. "At senior school, I ran the 16mm projector for the film club. You charged everyone 10p and booked a film on the Monday; it arrived on the Tuesday; you ran it on the Wednesday and all the 10ps paid for the hire of the print."

Just as he was completing his O-Levels, he came across an ad in the Evening Standard: "Trainee projectionist required, Odeon Leicester Square". When the cinema's then-chief engineer offered Norris the position, he told him, "'You're the only candidate who was enthusiastic about cinema.' Everyone else was just there for a job; it could've been changing tyres for all they cared."

He started work in May 1980, projecting the first Star Wars sequel in 70mm. At the time, the chief engineer's staff included two chief projectionists, two senior projectionists and Norris, the trainee – all for a single screen.

"We used to do Chinese films on Sunday and Monday nights, for the local Chinese community. Nobody wanted to make the prints up – they'd come from Hong Kong, been run a million times, put in the wrong tins and had a join every two feet. They were a jigsaw puzzle, so they got the boy to do it. That was my training ground. Everything you can think of went wrong, but the Chinese didn't care, they were too busy smoking and gambling; the cinema was just a social thing for them."

Working at a Leicester Square cinema meant Norris often came into contact with industry greats. "People think the film just gets bunged on, but with 35mm you had to check every print for scratches or differences in colour, sound and light from reel to reel. If you were rehearsing for a premiere, often the filmmakers would come. When we did A Passage to India [in 1984], David Lean came and talked to us all the way through the film; it was like having a live director's commentary."

In his 26 years at the Odeon, and six more at the Empire, he was responsible for 25 Royal Film Performances, 10 of which were his beloved Bonds. "There's probably not another projectionist alive who's done 10 Bond premieres," he says. "My first was For Your Eyes Only in 1981. I did the last few Moores, the Daltons, the first three Brosnans. Then after I moved to the Empire in 2006, I did Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace."

Nowadays, reel changes have been replaced with hard drives and computer passwords. The UK's first digital projector was tested at the Odeon Leicester Square. "I thought, 'You can stick your head in the sand, or you can go with the new technology.' I'm not weeping over the end of 35mm. It's just progress. I can't remember the last time I screened a 35mm film to the public.

"We did the premiere of Charlie Wilson's War (2007), which was made by Mike Nichols, who's 70-odd. They told us, 'Mike doesn't like digital; it has to be film for the premiere.' Some of the old boys haven't quite accepted the change."

The rise of digital itself, he says, is not the problem. "The problem is that now, if something goes wrong in a screening, there's nobody there to fix it. That is wrong." To its credit, the Empire bucks the trend: his old job will be filled, and the cinema still has three full-time projectionists on its staff.

Lucky for him, Norris will never have to suffer a mid-screening breakdown as a paying audience member. "I don't go to the cinema anymore," he says. "Mark [Kermode] has a code of conduct – don't turn your phone on, don't eat popcorn – and it's true: the public are terrible sometimes! I've a friend who can't sit and watch a film with the public anymore. I'm sort of the same."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent