The reel life of the movies

by Brian Clarey

Sometimes Kate Morris will peek through the portal windows that dot the long, concrete corridor where she works, timing her glances with climactic events of the movies that she projects on the screens and getting an easy laugh as she watches the audiences’ reactions.

‘“Have you seen The Ring?’” she asks. ‘“There’s one of those moments, if you know when it’s coming you can kinda peek. Everyone will move. It’s like’—,’” and her whole body flinches to illustrate her point.

Kate, a 22-year-old, bespectacled redhead, has been working for two years at the Carmike 18, the big-house multiplex tucked into a corner of land formed by I-40 and Wendover Avenue. She worked her way up to her present gig as projection manager from the bottom ‘— she’s sold popcorn, torn tickets, swept the floors, all with an eye on getting up to the projection booth, the place where the magic happens.

‘“When I was a kid I saw a projection booth and said, ‘I absolutely must work here,”” she says.

But being the ultimate insider at the movie house is more than just a fancy title and the opportunity for voyeurism. Forget the preconceived image of an artsy slacker pulling bong hits in a solitary booth behind the last row of chairs. The Carmike’s ‘projection booth’ is this concrete spine that runs the length of the building with portals into every theater, 18 projectors running simultaneously and enough footage to reach, if not to the moon, then at least to Hawaii, all of which must be stored, maintained, and jockeyed around from projector to reel to shelf. It’s a hands-on, blue-collar job and Kate spends the bulk of her work day in constant motion.

‘“She’s working up there,’” says Marcus Mintz, manager of the theater.

The films come by courier at a brisk pace, especially during summer, Thanksgiving and the winter holiday season, when lots of new movies come out every week. They’re packaged in sturdy orange cases with metal fittings. Each movie is broken down into 20-minute reels for shipping and when they arrive Kate cracks open the cases and splices the pieces tip to tail onto one big reel using a high-tech, three-tiered platter system and also a good, old-fashioned hand-cranking machine.

‘“Back in the day,’” she says, ‘“they’d change the reels, like when they were moving.’”

The complete film is lain on one of the platters and run through several pulley-type devices and then threaded through a projector the size of a refrigerator. A computer coordinates the picture with the sound, which comes off a disc that’s played inside a sound tower. The film recoils on another platter in such a way that it is ready to be shown again immediately.

‘“There’s so much people don’t understand about this,’” Kate says. ‘“They’re like, ‘Can you rewind it a little?””

She walks the length of the hallway, listening for signs of trouble in the machines and looking for possible snags in the processes she oversees. One setup shows a preview for The Cave, due out in a few days.

‘“We changed a lamp in that projector today,’” she says. ‘“It’s a shame you missed that.’” Changing a light bulb, she says, is a lot more complex than one would think. It involves a trip to the roof of the building, with its sterling view of the interstate, and a consultation with one of the many exhaust fans up there ‘— trapped heat is what makes the lamps blow, she says. It’s enough of a process that it might form the basis for the punchline of a decent joke.

Batman Returns plays on screen 12, a few portals down.

‘“You seen it?’” she asks. ‘“It’s toward the end.’” She turns up the sound to hear the dialogue and listens for a moment before moving on.

She says even though she deals in them all day, she still likes the movies.

‘“I’m definitely more particular about which movies I watch now,’” she says. ‘“I’ve become desensitized to certain things.’”

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