Showing movies on actual film in theaters has been dying out for the better part of a decade. But in Mansfield, old-school film projection is making a comeback. On this week’s State of the Arts, we head to the Renaissance Theatre which has been restoring its film projectors to their former glory, piece by piece.
Renaissance Theatre CEO Mike Miller leads the way. He’s takes me up a claustrophobic set of stairs to a concrete room that looks like a bomb shelter.
"We are in the projection booth that is at the very back of the historic Renaissance Theatre that was built in 1928."
It’s like stepping back in time, dusty film canisters and an ancient reel-to-reel cutting table are off to one side. At the back, two giant 35 mm film projectors sit in front of small portholes looking out over the theater. Miller said they sat unused for about 15 years, when the idea to refurbish them for the theater’s 90th anniversary came to light.
"We started this project probably three years ago. So everything from repainting and fixing plaster and moving old equipment out and new equipment in. It’s been quite a process."
After the restoration was completed, the first film shown was a silent movie called Get Your Man.
"Which was the original film shown here on opening night here in 1928," Miller said.
Much of the restoration process was left in the well-practiced hands of John Williamson. He points to the projector’s large cast iron bases.
"You know smaller projectors you used lean on them and the picture would move, this thing you lean on it and the only thing you do is hurt your arm," he said.
Until a few years ago, Williamson owned American Theater Equipment, a company that serviced and sold projectors throughout the Midwest. Now he works on them as a hobby.
Because film reels can be thousands of feet long, one projector cannot hold an entire movie. You need two projectors and a skilled projectionist to make the switch without the audience ever knowing.
"When it gets to the end of the reel there’s a cue mark on the film. The first mark you start the motor, the second mark they change over (to the second projector)."
He flips a few switches and the two projectors come to life with whirs and clicks, bringing back the sound of analog movie magic.
The Decline of Film
Use of film projectors has been winding down for the better part of a decade. Digital projectors, which get movies not in film canisters, but through more modern ways, like over the internet, satellite or hard drive, are now the industry standard. You can find only a handful of analog projectors still running in the state.
"This stuff will literally run forever. The only thing that’s bad about it is when it sits for a long time, like this stuff did, it’ll get all gummed up and needs a lot of love."
The Renaissance projectors were installed 90 years ago, and over time components were swapped out as newer technology became available. Williamson points to parts made from the 1920s all the way through the new millennium.
"The people that made the sound head went out of business I think in 1958. So none of the parts have been made. So to find parts we either have to find somebody that has them laying around or find another projector someplace and scavenge the parts out of it. If you want to keep two running you almost need four."
And for the hardest to find parts, they have to hire a machine shop to make them from scratch.
"Well as long as I’m around I’ll kind of hang around this stuff. But after my generation is gone. I don’t know who’s going to work on this stuff. Not many people show any interest in wanting to learn any of it."
Williamson said he’s seen a small bump in demand for film projection in not-for-profit theaters, like the Renaissance. But overall he said there’s not enough of a demand to truly resurrect film.
Which he thinks is a shame. He loves the look of analog movies and the skill it takes to put them on screen.