What would it be like, after all, to have your own private screening room? The sudden velvety silence, the big screen, the few rows of seats, the five deep plush chairs in the back row. Here is the magical echo of entitlement and expectation. Without the popcorn and Skittles and cellphone-chattering classes, surely the film you are about to see will be special somehow, extraordinary, no matter that many past experiences would almost guarantee the contrary.
The Wilshire Screening Room is right next to a doctor's office in the generically marble-floored, shiny lobby of a brown-granite modern office building on Wilshire Boulevard and it is not very well marked. But open the correct door -- the one next to the security office and up a few steps -- and you enter one of the industry rabbit holes, a place of limitless possibility.
"Wait, wait," says a voice, and a man appears, fluffing the cushions of the plush chairs, pushing them fastidiously back to their original positions. He is small, neatly dressed, with perfectly combed hair and a small, precise mustache. He offers a jar of candy -- Tootsie Rolls and peppermint drops -- while informing you with a smile that no other food or drinks are allowed in the screening room.
If you are five or 10 minutes early, he is likely to fill the time with a brief history of the place -- the building once belonged to Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis and this was his personal screening room. It is, the man says proudly, the best small screening room in town as per Variety, and is available for rent for all manner of screenings, even those that might require a small party or reception afterward -- for which Audis Husar Fine Art, the next door gallery, is quite lovely and available.
The man is Michael Hall, 39, a third-generation union projectionist -- he stresses the union -- who for the last two years has leased and run the Wilshire Screening Room.
When he moved to Los Angeles from Orange County five years ago, Hall was simply looking to find projectionist work that was higher quality and paid better. Instead, he found a small and quiet kingdom.
When the building changed owners three years ago, he was hired to upgrade the room. Less than a year later, the building changed hands again, and although he didn't have a contract, Hall continued to improve the equipment, putting $50,000 of his own money into the room. In January 2003, he signed the lease and began his quest to become, as his business card extols, "the best little room in town."
A screen apart
Normal people see movies in theaters. The rest -- those who need to see movies before they are released or even quite finished (critics, industry types, festival organizers, members of the press) often see them in screening rooms, which are scattered across Los Angeles. Some studios have their own screening rooms -- the big ones on their lots, the smaller ones in sometimes-unexpected buildings in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and West L.A.
Mainstream theaters are used for big media screenings and premieres -- the ArcLight and the Grove are very hot right now -- but they are more expensive to rent. Fine if you want an event, full of assistant editors and the film crew's family members, but not sensible if you're showing it to a handful of journalists in hopes they'll want to do profiles of the leads or the director.
For acquisition screenings, small indie premieres, event screenings and prefestival viewings, publicists and filmmakers turn to the smaller rooms, at the Aidikoff and the Clarity in Beverly Hills, the Sunset Screening Room in West Hollywood and the Wilshire. And since he took over the Wilshire, Hall has worked pretty much 24/7 trying to push it to the top of everyone's list.
He still works as a projectionist around town, including in the private screening rooms of the rich and famous, but every cent, he says, goes back into the Wilshire room. Because he wants it to be perfect -- "state of the art," he says repeatedly, with an oddly moving mixture of resolve and wistfulness.
"The standards of film quality in some of the big theaters is just horrible," he says, adding in a tone of true shock: "The owners just don't care about quality."
Hall cares about quality and hopes to make other people care too. He envisions running a half-dozen screening rooms around Los Angeles with Wilshire as a model.
"It will take some time," he says with a small smile, "but I'm patient."
It's time to run the movie and he disappears into the projection room, leaving in his wake the achingly familiar and seemingly borderless power of hope that fuels the entertainment industry, as powerful as that of the winsome and resolute young actress stepping off the bus. The last movie Hall saw, he thinks, was "Spider-Man 2." He can't really watch the films from the projection room and with two cellphones and two pagers, he has very little free time. The main title rolls, and here on the screen is the culmination of many people's work and hopes, another shot at fame and fortune.
But in the projection room, Michael Hall is living the dream too. No deals, no paparazzi, no high-profile paycheck. Just Hollywood, pure and simple.