A rare 35-millimeter print of the 1948 Japanese film “Yuwaku (Temptation)” had been shipped halfway around the world for a festival at the Museum of Modern Art. The screening was to begin in 22 minutes. And the equipment was acting up.
Whether the show would go on came down to Chris Jolly, the projectionist.
He had already threaded the first reel through one of the theater’s twin projectors but the second projector, meant to fire up the next reel in a seamless changeover, was on the fritz.
As audience members filled the auditorium below the booth, Mr. Jolly pried at the back of a machine with a screwdriver. The moment seemed to be captured in a cartoon of an addled projectionist pinned to the wall and captioned, “Countless hours of pure boredom. Then come moments of stark terror!”
Undaunted, Mr. Jolly set aside the tools and decided to make do with a single projector. He would allow each reel to finish, then rapidly thread the next through the one working machine, suspending the audience in a moment of darkness. Some regulars might have experienced this before, he reasoned. “We’re pros in here; they’re pros at watching movies.
A decade after digital cinema largely took over the multiplex, 35-millimeter film is thriving in New York City. A small group of museums, repertory movie houses, and newer niche theaters like Alamo Drafthouse, Nitehawk and Roxy Cinema are still using antiquated projectors to show older, sometimes obscure titles that are available only on film, and finding a ready audience.
Which means film projectionists are in demand. “New York is one of the best places to have this job,” said Matthew Reichard, the technical director at Metrograph, an art house on the Lower East Side. “It’s taken very seriously.”
No one knows for sure how many film projectionists there are in the city, but Michael Fewx, who represents cinema technicians in IATSE Local 306, a union that also includes Broadway ticket takers and ushers, estimates that around 50 members regularly work with 35 millimeter. “All projectionists need to primarily know digital at this point,” he said, but “film projection is a highlighted skill.” Those in the union can earn an hourly wage of $40 and more for overtime.
Mr. Jolly’s career, like that of many projectionists, was an outgrowth of a childhood love for cinema. But now his job gets in the way; it’s difficult to watch a movie while showing it. Mr. Jolly, who was for years the on-call projectionist for Martin Scorsese at his in-office screening room, compared it to being a car passenger versus the one behind the wheel. “Somebody is like, ‘Oh, look at this beautiful view that’s passing!’ And you’re like, ‘I can’t look at it — I have to drive.’”
Other projectionists came to the job as struggling artists who needed a steady gig. Gregory Wolfe and his brother, James, arrived in New York City in the 1980s to study acting, with a particular interest in Shakespeare. They were working as stagehands at Lincoln Center when they fell into projecting for its film society.
Nowadays James’s mustache contains more salt than pepper. Gregory doesn’t bother owning a cellphone because his family knows if he’s not in their Hell’s Kitchen apartment, he’s on West 65th Street, in one of the center’s theaters. “I’m a fixed star in the universe,” he said.
The brothers spend long hours working in narrow confines, noisy with the clatter of machinery and fluttering film, managing what Gregory calls “a violent process.” A 35-millimeter projector is motion and stillness in one: gripping the film by its sprocket holes, it advances a frame and exposes it for an instant to the beam of a 3,000-watt xenon bulb, then shutters the bulb to return the theater to darkness before teeing up the next frame.
Most surviving films are on celluloid, which is tolerant of this strain but easily scratched or punctured, and so must be fed precisely through the projector’s gates. If the print is held for more than an instant before the concentrated light, it melts, so the projected image can be seen and focused only when the process is in motion. “Film is like a living, breathing organism,” Gregory said.
And although it may take thousands of people to make a movie, the artwork is not fully realized until a person puts the image onto a screen. So, the Wolfe brothers would argue, the projectionist is part of the same creative process. “You’re the final piece of the puzzle,” James said.
The fundamentals of the technology — passing light through a miniature image — have not changed substantially since the advent of cinema, which is why theaters can still show a century-old print but a person would have trouble finding a way to watch a VHS tape of “The Lion King.”
Only a decade ago, film seemed on its way to extinction. Digital technologies promised to reduce the complexity of projection to the push of a button. Movie distributors cajoled theaters into replacing their 35-millimeter projectors with digital ones and phased out the production of new prints. Cinephiles eulogized the disappearing medium. New York City, which had long made projectionists pass a difficult exam to obtain a motion picture operator license, dropped the requirement.
But even as theaters adapted to the digital era, a notable few kept their film projectors. And paradoxically, the threat to the old 35-millimeter technology gave it a new cachet. A live screening of a physical print, with all its hiccups, is a singular event in a way that the digital projection of an infinitely rebootable file can never be.
Some theater owners make a business case for film. Alamo Drafthouse, a national chain of cinemas with three locations in New York City, retains 35 millimeter in all its markets, according to its founder, Tim League. This allows its theaters to draw on a vaster catalog of movies — the chain shows about 2,000 unique films each year — and to tap a broader audience. “You can show weird movies and people will come,” he said. Blockbusters still account for the majority of the company’s revenue, he added, but earnings from 35-millimeter screenings contribute as much as 5 percent.
“You’re the final piece of the puzzle,” said James Wolfe of the projectionist’s role in the filmmaking process.
The nostalgia of analog is also a draw, said Alexander Olch, who started Metrograph in 2016. “You offer the same title in digital and 35 millimeter, and the 35-millimeter screening always sells way more tickets,” he said. To make the projectionist part of the moviegoing experience, Mr. Olch had an additional window cut into the booth so the audience could look inside.
The transition to digital heightened the responsibilities of the film projectionist, too. As studios ceased making new prints, old films became more precious, like art objects that needed to be treated with care.
Before each screening at Anthology Film Archives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Genevieve Havemeyer-King runs the entire film — a mile in length for each hour onscreen — between her fingertips. She eyeballs the surface for scratches and feels the film’s edges for tears or ragged splices that could jam in the projector. “There’s no room for error,” she said.
Her reverence is practiced: she has a graduate degree in film preservation, and by day she digitizes and conserves media for the New York Public Library. As she prepared for a screening in Anthology’s darkened booth, with only a small portal to the theater and no sense of the day outside, she seemed like a submarine captain. “Or a lighthouse keeper,” she suggested.
Film projectionists are so sought after they find it difficult to take vacation. On a recent Thursday at Film Forum, Raymond Atterson was working his fourth straight 11-hour day. He ran movies in four theaters simultaneously from a single zigzagging booth that he navigated with ease, his head passing bare millimeters beneath metal ductwork. On the walls hung a few scrawled drawings by his son, who in infancy would sometimes spend hours in the booth with his father. Now the boy is in high school.
More technician than movie buff, Mr. Atterson doesn’t attend closely to what’s showing, he said. In spare moments he has made it most of the way through an online certification in cybersecurity, and he envisions a second career upon returning to his native Ghana. But the “cinemaniacs” in the audience are another matter, he said. “Trust me,” he continued, “film is still alive.”
One of the leading supporters of film preservation is Mr. Scorsese, whose Film Foundation protects and restores hundreds of prints and funds workshops for projectionists. In an email, he fondly recalled screenings at the old Thalia, New Yorker, and Bleecker Street cinemas but conceded that today’s digital technologies have made it possible to watch movies at home that are “almost indistinguishable” from what you see and hear in a theater. And the scratches and splices of projected film, once an intrinsic part of the experience, are beginning to feel jarring. “For me, watching films on 16 millimeter or 35 millimeter is about the history of the art form,” he wrote.
When digitization first arrived, Mr. Scorsese continued, the craft of projecting film seemed “as obsolete to many people as umbrella or typewriter repair.” But he still sees it as an invaluable skill. A 35-millimeter projectionist “has to be someone who is truly in love with the feeling of film in their hands, the tasks of cleaning it and threading it correctly through the projector so that it has the right amount of tension, and, of course, the moving image itself, coming to life frame by frame.”
Recently at Lincoln Center, Maeve Fitzgerald Cavadini, a trainee, was threading projectors under Gregory Wolfe’s supervision. As she worked, consulting images she had saved on her iPhone, Mr. Wolfe reminisced about the opening of the movie theater in 1991. “That was the year I was born,” she interjected.
After examining her handiwork, Mr. Wolfe made some slight adjustments, reassuring her, “If you want to be a good projectionist you have to make every mistake possible‚ twice.” The screening ran without incident but Ms. Cavadini balked at working a shift alone. “It’s so much different from digital projection,” she said. “You’re actually putting on a show.”
Back at the Museum of Modern Art, the credits rolled for “Yuwaku” and audience members exited the theater and into a drizzle. One of them, Kyle Ericksen, said she hadn’t understood the darkened pauses between the reels but neither had they bothered her. In hindsight, she appreciated the luminosity of the image. “If you get a gorgeous print that’s projected, it’s like nothing else.”