Projectionists’ Strike in 2nd Year but Show Goes On at Theaters
Technically, the movie projectionists’ union is still on strike against West Los Angeles-based Landmark Theatre Corp. But as the walkout stretches into its second year, the visible signs of a labor dispute have virtually disappeared.
It has been more than a month since Landmark won a National Labor Relations Board ruling that prohibits the projectionists from picketing the Goldwyn Pavilion Cinemas at the Westside Pavilion. It has been more than three months since strikers waved accusatory posters and passed out handbills in front of the Nuart Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard and the Rialto in South Pasadena.
The company has gone ahead with plans to eliminate three of the nine weekly projectionists’ shifts at the Nuart and the Rialto. Replacement projectionists work the remaining six shifts and are paid $9 an hour, the same as was offered to the strikers. During Saturday and Sunday matinees and one night a week, the film is operated by the theater manager, who starts it and then leaves the booth to perform his other duties.
Managers run all the movies at the Goldwyn, which opened last October while the strike was in full swing.
And union officials say that even their good friends sometimes violate a Landmark boycott called by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
In terms of the numbers involved--three theaters and 11 projectionists--the strike is a small one. But union officials and theater owners alike say the results illuminate the changing role of the projectionist in the highly automated booths of today’s film houses.
The 450-member Los Angeles County branch of the projectionists’ union--Local 150 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage and Moving Picture Machine Operators--had hoped the Landmark strike would be the first reversal in a national trend toward “limited service.” The phrase is industry jargon for cuts in the number of full-time projectionists now that the equipment is easier to operate.
Such cuts are achieved in two ways. Managers can run the projectors part of the time, leaving fewer hours for professional projectionists. Or a single projectionist can cover several theaters during a shift, resulting in fewer jobs. Either way, projection equipment is sometimes left unattended.
Theater companies have contended that the resulting savings could lead to construction of more movie complexes so that the overall number of projectionists’ jobs need not be reduced.
But negotiators for Local 150 noted that United Artists theaters did away with all full-time projectionists after their union contract expired in 1982. Landmark followed suit with its Goldwyn complex.
The local officers argued that automation is fine, but that a trained film handler should always be standing by in case something goes wrong. Otherwise, they said, audiences can expect to encounter more and more out-of-sequence reels, blurry pictures and out-of-sync sound. And, they added, film studios and distributors can expect more scratched and dirty prints because of improper equipment maintenance.
They also are well aware that looming ahead is the largest of the local’s contracts--with the Southwest Theatres Labor Negotiating Committee. The committee bargains for the Pacific, Mann, General Cinema and Metropolitan theater chains, among others, and accounts for about 80% of the county’s screens. Talks begin in the fall, the contract expires in January and the major theater chains have been monitoring the Landmark dispute.
And so the 13 months since the strike began on May 24, 1985, have been particularly painful for the officers of Local 150.
“I don’t even like to think about it,” said Lee Sanders, a Local 150 vice president. “I thought we’d get a quick settlement and we didn’t.”
In the first two months of the strike, the union’s pickets and petitions and handbills were effective weapons. “We had a lot of people who were sympathetic to the strike. We felt a slowing” in patronage, said Paul Richardson, vice president of operations for Landmark.
In June, Landmark sold one of its theaters, the Vista in Hollywood. “That’s a case where the strike and the projection labor cost were a factor,” said company president Steve Gilula. “We were trying to see if we could cut costs. The labor problems hastened its demise.” The theater’s new owner does not use union projectionists.
Inside the remaining theaters, the absence of the full-time projectionists caused “some chaotic problems periodically” with the projection quality, Gilula said.
When the Goldwyn opened, a Times movie writer mentioned in print that a film there “started off the sprocket and continued out of sync.” A letter to the editor of a local weekly paper criticized the Goldwyn for interruptions in the screenings at two different shows.
But eventually, management and non-union projectionists became more adept at handling the screening equipment, Richardson and Gilula said.
Customers drifted back. The Nuart set two individual house records and had the most profitable January in its history, Gilula said.
The projectionists, especially those employed outside the Landmark chain, grew weary of picket duty. At a February meeting of the entire local, the members took a vote on whether picketing should remain mandatory. Marbles were cast: black meant picketing would be required, white meant it should be voluntary. The officers counted 17 black balls, 41 white.
Immediately, the ranks of pickets dwindled. Sanders, the vice president most involved with the strike, decided he would only show up at Landmark theaters if another union member planned to be there. He spent a lot of time by the phone. Few called to sign up for duty.
One day, he waited outside the Nuart for a projectionist who had said he would be there to picket. Nobody showed. Sanders knew then that the picketing was over. “It took less than two weeks after the vote,” Sanders said.
He was hurt. But the members’ reaction was in tune with the union’s attitude at the national level.
Though locals in New York and Chicago have also resisted “limited service,” the union has agreed to such scheduling in contracts in the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest and in California, as close as Orange County.
“This is 1986 and not 1935,” said Mack St. Johns, a West Coast representative of the union, which is based in New York. “The (union) understands the need for change, but we try to preserve what we can. Maybe some of these jobs can be phased out over a period of time.”
The local has helped several former Landmark projectionists find temporary stints at other union theaters. “There’s been one week in all this time that I haven’t worked at all,” said Greg Giacona, 38, who had been employed at the Vista.
Others have left town--one went to Seattle--or the projection business--one became a film editor.
The Landmark strikers do not regret the walkout. “L. A. movie-goers, at least a small percentage of them, are aware now that projectors do not just start up by themselves,” said John Hamel, 32, who worked at the Nuart and the Rialto. “We had to strike to make the (large movie theater chains) aware of that too.”
When talks with the major chains begin, “we expect to be creative,” said the local’s business agent, Richard D. Smith. “We’re trying to be cooperative, but you don’t want to phase yourself out.”
Smith and Dan Chernow, head negotiator for the major chains’ committee, both said they do not expect a strike over the large contract.
As for Landmark, the company’s cutbacks on projectionists saved $6,000 to $7,000 at each of the two revival houses this year, Richardson said. Total operating budgets were $25,000 to $30,000 at each theater last year, he said.
The Nuart and the Rialto are breaking even and the Goldwyn is profitable, he added.
In six months, Landmark’s contract with projectionists at a theater in St. Louis will expire. “We’ll be asking for limited service,” Richardson said. “Yes, we will.”