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.

Tim Walker
Thursday 21 June 2012 13:37

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."

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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."

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