If it's crap ... We'll tell you
While watching Hugo, I realized that he is the man responsible for firing the projectionists. As I once talked about before, the movie theater industry has been pushing towards a fully-automated digital projection system. This system would replace all 35mm film projectors with digital ones capable of converting in and out of the 3D filter as necessary. The big selling point for most movie theater companies is that it would cut overhead cost by a great amount, as the digital projection system can be programmed to only turn on if a ticket has been sold for a specific show. No tickets sold, the projector doesn't turn on.
But this cut came at the cost of the job of the projectionist. The man or woman in the booth whose job it was to run the film through the projector, make sure that machine is clean and running properly, and troubleshoot any errors that may come up, things as minor as the focus slipping or as major as the film getting tangled up on itself.
So how is Lucas the man I hold responsible for these people losing their job? Let's travel back in time a bit to when the first of the Star Wars prequels were coming out.
In 1999, Episode I: The Phantom Menace was shown on four digital screens to the public. (citation) This was the first public demonstration of the digital projection system, and Lucas was the face of the movement. He kept saying over and over again about how much more clear the film would be, how there would be less shaking of the film when projected, and how digital films won't degrade over multiple showings. He even went so far as to film the remaining Star Wars prequels using digital cameras to prove that it is actually cheaper from a production stance. No more having to run the budget up on reels of films that need to be sent off to be developed and then shipped to be edited. You just load in a DVD or hard drive and shoot. No more having to ship the final cut of the film with all its taped edits to another specialized plant to copy them into thousands of copies for world-wide distribution. You just burn and send a DVD off to wherever it needs to go.
Over time, the security of this system increased. Hard drives with the full film on it required a USB key in order for them to be unlocked. These keys would often be shipped separately, and if a theater didn't get one, they could call the studio up who would have a record of what hard drive went where and the code to unlock it. The digital conversion that Lucas spear-headed made it possible for movie critics to have more screener copies of films that are already out in theaters for them to review if the film is not showing in their area, making the public sneak preview a more novel experience rather than one exclusively for the press and their invitees. On top of that, the digital conversion made the wait time between the theater release and the home release shorter. What used to take six months to do can be done in a matter of weeks. Just ask anyone who has burned a DVD of their home movies on a Mac.
During this time, you had a faction of people arguing that while digital is indeed cheaper and offers a quick turn-over rate of the product, film is still better. Photographers explaining how digital cameras are only as good as their ability to capture an image, often limited by the hardware of the camera, and that a single piece of 35mm film is able to capture truer HD than any HD camera could. Critics of the technology argued that they couldn't see the difference between a film print and a digital print of a movie when placed side by side to each other. You even had the science community come in for a while explaining how the human eye cannot process anything beyond 300dpi, making all those 720dpi and 1080dpi HDTVs useless on a biological level.
Yet, like the mythical Blu-ray vs. HD DVD, this format war ended with the victor being the digital film. And now, Hollywood has a cache of digital cameras, both traditional and 3D, for any film maker to use. Editors now do digital cuts instead of the ones that involve blades and scissors. And movie theaters are running what amounts to just really expensive and fancy Blu-ray players.
So while the editors and cinematographers are able to keep their jobs and adapt to the digital age that Lucas started in Hollywood, the movie theater projectionist ended up getting replaced. With what? With a computer server. The largest theaters in the nation can now be run without a single person in the projection booth. Maybe once a week someone goes in there to reprogram the schedule and upload the weekend's newest release. It's very rare that the entire system would crash or lock up like a normal computer would, since all they are doing is running a play list of videos and images at 1GB/s on digital rigs designed for that kind of streaming process. And if they do crash, it only takes the theater manage to walk downstairs, restart the system, and then rewind the movie a few minutes back. No different than what you would do at home if the power flickered while you were watching The Dark Knight on your home theater system.
Recently, a friend of mine working in the independent film industry in Austin tweeted something interesting on the last day of production. She said the actors she was working with were happy to hear the director say "Check the gate." Most haven't even heard that phrase in the last ten years, and those that did were happy to once again be acting on film and that there were still people out there using film to make movies. Unfortunately, her movie that she worked on may not get played as widely as they would like. It isn't because it is an independent film; it's because there are very few, if any, theaters left that still have 35mm projectors. This means they will have to spend money converting film negatives to a digital format, a process that Hollywood no longer does.
When I went to see Hugo, I found myself turning around to look into the projection booth when it was time to start the movie just to see the figure of a person hitting the start button. I didn't see a soul operating the projector, which made one scene in that movie the most ironic and meta experience I have had at the movies. I'm going to miss the projectionists.