How the project begun
Watching a film from the balcony at Vancouver’s Fifth Avenue Cinemas in late 2011, the pair heard the whirring of the projector during the closing credits. They turned around and peered through the small rectangular window just above their heads. They saw a long stream of film flying through the air, seemingly from nowhere, straight into the projector. There wasn’t anyone in the projection booth – just the mysterious airborne strip of film, the boxy projector and the beam of light it shot out over the auditorium. Silmara immediately wanted to photograph the booth. She sees her camera as a passport to the unusual or off-limit area; a key to the stories often concealed there. The projection room has certainly been off-limits to moviegoers. Audiences have always understood, of course, that within that little room above them various mechanical and technical processes are set in motion in order to provide them with the sound and images on the screen they had paid to see, but even so, the room itself remained a private, shadowy cave. Curtis and Silmara wanted to shine a light into that space.
The staff at Fifth Avenue was open to the idea of allowing a photographer (and her tripod-carrying husband) into their series of interlocking projection booths, but warned that time was short: the multiplex was replacing all five film projectors with digital counterparts over the next couple of weeks. Curtis and Silmara soon discovered the same story across the city: theatres which hadn’t already switched from 35mm film to DCP (Digital Film Package) would soon be forced to. By the end of 2013, Hollywood studios would no longer be striking prints for major releases. The studios had been hinting at complete digital conversion for several years, but this time they were serious. The era of mass-market movies printed and distributed on film was over.
(On their first visit to the projection booths at Fifth Avenue, Silmara and Curtis learned that the film they’d seen flying from across the room was actually being spun off a giant platter. A form of automation introduced to cinemas in the 1960s, the platter system allowed four or five reels of film to be spliced together horizontally. The whole movie could then be played non-stop without a projectionist needing to be on hand to change the reels over every twenty minutes or so).
Beyond the replacement of the projection hardware itself, the newly-formed Projection Project discovered other stories – stories of the changing nature of movie exhibition across the city and throughout the province. They’ve witnessed vintage single-screen cinemas shut their doors and sit empty (Vancouver’s Hollywood Theatre), turn into churches (Surrey’s Clova or East Vancouver’s Collingwood Theatre) or even be demolished (Kitsilano’s Ridge and Burnaby’s Dolphin Theatres). They’ve listened to inspiring stories of community fundraising campaigns in which the owners of classic theatres were able to buy the digital projectors needed to stay in business. They’ve been offered generous amounts of free popcorn by small-town theatre managers across the province. All the while, movie going itself was continuing much as it had for over a hundred years. Demographics and technology are changing, but people still head out…to be collectively told tales in the dark.
The Project Project is a multimedia celebration of moviegoing and a sharing of cinematic stories. Silmara and Curtis hope you find these stories as compelling as they do.