For two weeks now, as much drama has unfolded on the sidewalk in front of the Nuart Theatre as on the movie screen inside.
Patrons approaching the West Los Angeles revival house for everything from X-rated films to musicals have been greeted by striking projectionists toting picket signs that accuse Landmark Theatres of being "Unfair to the Audience" at the Nuart and two sister theaters, the Vista in East Hollywood and the Rialto in South Pasadena.
Management has retaliated with signs of its own posted prominently in the ticket booth. And both sides are distributing handbills.
In terms of the numbers involved--three theaters and 11 projectionists--the labor dispute is a small one. But the Landmark strike is a preview.
May Lead to More Strikes
At its core is an issue that may lead to more strikes down the road at movie theaters throughout Los Angeles County: the automation of projection booths so that theater managers or their assistants can run the films with the push of a button.
The projectionists say they are not against automation as long as a trained film handler is always standing by in case something goes wrong. Otherwise, they say, movie audiences can expect to encounter more and more out-of-sequence reels, blurry focus and out-of-sync sound. And, they add, film studios and distributors can expect more scratched and dirty prints because of improper equipment maintenance.
Theater companies, however, say automation has enough safeguards to prevent such problems, so that projectionists will need to be on duty much of the time--but not continuously. And they say the resulting cuts in costs could lead to construction of more movie complexes so that the overall number of projectionists' jobs would not be reduced.
Landmark, which is based in West Los Angeles, wants the right to use managers to run movies during the three slowest of its nine weekly shifts, at Saturday and Sunday matinees and on Monday evenings. The change would mean a cutback in hours worked by the projectionists.
Such scheduling, known as "limited service" among movie theater companies, is not uncommon outside Los Angeles County. "There is a movement, really a national movement," said Robert W. Selig, president of the Theatre Assn. of California. "It's been going on for about six years."
The projectionists' union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Moving Picture Machine Operators, has agreed to "limited service" in contracts in the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest and other parts of California.
But union locals in New York and Chicago have resisted the trend. And leaders of the union's Local 150, which represents 450 projectionists in Los Angeles County, said that they believe a stand against "limited service" is especially necessary in the headquarters of the American movie industry. "Audiences here expect a better presentation," said Richard D. Smith, business manager for Local 150.
Talks Broke Down
Already, though, the United Artists movie theater chain has broken with the union in Los Angeles. When Local 150 refused to allow "limited service" in its United Artists contract in 1982, negotiations broke down and the company simply turned to non-union help for its 10 affected theaters.
The local's leaders said internal politics prevented a massive picketing effort then, although they placed small advertisements criticizing United Artists in local papers. But they are determined to take a stand with Landmark because looming ahead is the largest of Local 150's contracts, with the Southwest Theatres Labor Negotiating Committee.
The committee bargains for the Pacific, Mann, General Cinema and Metropolitan theater chains, which account for about 100 theaters--and about 80% of the local screens--in the county. And negotiating committee chair Dan Chernow wants to talk about limited service when the chains' contract expires Jan. 1, 1987.
"We have that in our contracts with other locals" in Long Beach and Orange County, Chernow said. "I certainly think it's a proposal that management would have on the table next time."
Countered Smith, of Local 150: "We expect them to ask for it. We do not expect to give it to them."
So, Smith said, agreeing to Landmark's demands would "open up a can of worms that we're not ready to deal with yet.
"Landmark is a different operation than Pacific or Mann. They're running old films; they change them every day. These need more attention. The majors will say if Landmark doesn't need projectionists all the time, why should they?"
Landmark's vice president of operations, Paul Richardson, said he feels caught in the middle. "I really think they're picking on the little guy," he said. "I want the projectionists in there as much as I can afford them in there to give the highest level of service. I'm asking them to give me a break."
He said he would prefer to have projectionists on duty all the time "because I need the manager on the floor during our busy times. Our manager greets the customers. There's a difference in the response time to the film breaking between a guy standing next to the projector or a guy in the lobby."
But Landmark's Los Angeles revival houses lost money last year, though the company's 27 theaters across the U.S. were profitable overall, Richardson said. "We're not going to carry these L.A. theaters," he said.
Agreed to Service
At other Landmark theaters in Northern California, union projectionists have agreed to limited service, Richardson said. Landmark has closed two others in the Chicago area where projectionists refused to allow the change, he added.
In Los Angeles, "we've made cost-cutting moves in every single aspect of our operation, including the home office. Our officers have taken pay cuts," Richardson said.
He is willing to pay the union's $9-an-hour scale for projectionists, he said. And he would give displaced employees jobs elsewhere in the theater, though they would be paid much less, until new projectionists openings occurred.
The strikers aren't impressed by the offer. "It isn't just that I couldn't live on it," said Doug Haise, 35, who worked at the Nuart for four years. "The films would suffer and the audiences would suffer."