Field Work Friday – Behind the Scenes at the Movie Theater

When I was a kid, I remember sitting in a movie theater at the start of a show, watching the flickering lights, and turning around to see where it was coming from.  I always wondered what was behind the small window high in the wall, and somehow I pictured a white-haired man in a black suit, perched on a stool beside an ancient projector.

That’s not what you’ll find in our local movie theater.

This week our playgroup headed out to Palace Pointe for a behind-the-scenes tour of how movies are shown.

The theater manager, Andy, has worked in theaters for 16 years now.  After meeting us in the lobby, he escorted us into the elevator and through the hallways to the projection room.

Expecting a small, dark space, imagine my amazement when we found ourselves in a large, bright, white-tiled room!  Super clean and very bright, Andy said that dust is the enemy of any theater because it will show up as spots and splotches onscreen.  Film machines actually have to be cleaned after each showing to keep everything operating smoothly.

Andy explained that when film is sent to the theater, it arrives on these small reels – each of which holds about 20 minutes of film.


In days of old, someone did have to perch beside the machine and change the reels as they finished – but no more.  Now they use this machine, a splicer, to attach the film end-to-end and make one really long reel.  They use a special kind of super-thin tape to secure it.


When they’re done, they have one huge real that rests on these round wheels called platters.  From here, the film winds through this machine, through the projector next to it, and then is wound onto another platter either above or below it.  This returns it to the proper form so that it’s ready to be shown again.


Andy explained that each square in the film represented 1/24th of a second.  Wow!

 Then he showed us the ‘commercials,’ the ads for other movies that play prior to the start of the feature presentation.

Much smaller and tightly bound, he even let our children pass around one.  They had never really seen film before, so this was a big deal!  Funny how things change, isn’t it?

All of this will soon be completely obsolete, however, because new requirements make it impossible to show film past December of this year.

By December theaters will be required to have a digital projector like this one.  


This machine is basically a large computer attached to a projector.  The movies arrive on a hard drive that is then inserted into the machine.  The film companies send key codes so that each movie can only be shown on a particular machine and within certain dates.  The theater then shows the movies by operating the touch-screen computer – or by pushing buttons on a phone.
Each one of these machines cost about $100,000.  Can you imagine??
Andy also explained that most movies are not sent per certain amount of money, but the theaters are charged a percentage of their sales – and that it’s usually 97& – 98% total!  He told us that they make very little money from actually showing the movies, and that that’s why theaters charge so much for popcorn and snacks.  That’s how they make the money that pays for staff wages, the light bill, etc.
So there you have it.  No little old man in a black suit – just a lot of big, black machines and small cartridges.
Who knew??
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