Alameda Theatre cuts corners with non-union workers

posted by Michael Zoldessy on July 9, 2008 at 7:45 am

ALAMEDA, CA — The recently reopened Alameda Theatre has been getting heat for hiring non-union projectionists.

Martin Lipow, president of Local 169 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts (IATSE) says that un-trained, non-union employees in the projection rooms at the new Alameda Theatre are likely to damage film prints and increase the costs for maintaining equipment at the theatre. Lipow says that the Alameda Theatre is using non-union “front of the house employees,” such as ushers, concession stand workers and ticket-takers, rather than trained projectionists, to effectively just “push the button” to start screenings on sophisticated equipment that was designed to be run by professionals. The results, he says, will be a diminished theatre experience for Alameda movie-goers, and a poorly run theatre that might not succeed.

Lipow works for Renaissance Rialto Theatres – owned by Allen Michaan – which also runs the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, the Orinda Theatre, and Auctions by the Bay at Alameda Point. Michaan is known for the political messages he posts on the Grand Lake Theatre, such as the anti-Iraq war slogan “No War For Oil.”

Read more at Action Alameda.

Theaters in this post

Comments (20)

William on July 9, 2008 at 8:31 am

Many theatres and major chain theatres around this country are run by non-union projectionists or limited union projectionists. Some are good and some are bad. The art of projection is almost dead.

Scott Neff
Scott Neff on July 9, 2008 at 9:57 am

The problems described in that article are not unique to that theatre as the article would suggest. Other than the Grand Lake and Orinda theatres I don’t know of many other locations in the bay area that have a union projectionist anymore.

I don’t know what good it does to picket the theatre, if push comes to shove and the owners wanted to make their union problems go away don’t they just need to install DLP? Are there union operators in DLP multiplexes?

KenLayton on July 9, 2008 at 6:10 pm

Yes, DLP would come under the “video technicians” union of IATSE.

markp on July 9, 2008 at 8:58 pm

I am an IATSE member now for almost 30 years. (33 if you count my apprenticeship). I remember when all we had in my local was projectionists. Now, I am the only one left who relies on it for income. And even with that, I share the booth with management. It is a 10 screen theatre I work in, and I must be honest, even though I give them 150%, they really don’t need me. And it pains me to say this, because my father was a projectionist for 55 years before passing on 15 years ago. He made a nice life for all of us, nice house, nice cars, etc. It is a sin the way we IATSE projectionists have been treated the last 15 to 20 years. But that’s what corporate america has done to every industry anyway, so why would it be different for us? Good luck in CA. I hope you are successful.

JohnRice on July 9, 2008 at 10:57 pm

It’s more than just a problem of being union or non union although I’ve been a unIon (railroad) man most of my life and strongly approve of the hiring of union projectionists. They generally just know their craft and do it better! I have also seen some very competent non union projectionists. In fact (not to brag) I was one of them many moons ago. With the Alameda they just seem to have hired an incompetent group of individuals to run their equipment. I mean these guys and/or gals haven’t even figured out how to splice or thread in frame yet! I’m not even sure the blame can be placed directly on them. If no one teaches you properly you can’t be expected to do a good job. Take a look at the Alameda’s page on this website to read about the problems they’ve had since opening and are continuing to have. Talk about amateur night at the movies!

bigred on July 10, 2008 at 1:04 am

I worked with a non union projectionist I would put with the best of them but he was trained by the union. At the time he worked for a family theatre and the union trained him and won’t push to get in family run theatres. A few years later Kerasotes offered to but the theatre he was at and another one 2 blocks away owned by the same family along with one a couple blocks away and both owners told them what they could do with the offers. 2 weeks later the other company’s burned to the ground and the others sold very fast. He stayed on with Kerasotes for many years ( more than he wants to admit) and transfered to a theatre I worked with him at that they bought from General Cinema. The manager that started at the theatre they bought from GC broke so many films in the first month along they had to bring him in to run the booth as a co manager. One of the ways some of those films were broke was because of stepping on the film as the projector was running. As bad as Kerasotes projectionists are there is a theatre near where I live now that is worse.

MPol on July 10, 2008 at 7:25 pm

That sounds like a sad story, bigred.

Ron Carlson
Ron Carlson on July 10, 2008 at 7:38 pm

This seems to be the trend in movie theaters today. While there are some great people out there doing exceptional jobs the bulk of the corporate theaters are using the front of house staff to run the booth. This gives us a less than professional show. I have been a projectionist for many years (over 20)and while I was never a union member I was trained by a Union projectionist who stressed that there was more to running a movie than just starting the machine. Sadly there is not much showmanship left in the “show”.

JohnMLauter on July 11, 2008 at 2:24 pm

Years ago I worked as a non-union projectionist and was very conscientious, did no damage to prints, performed flawless changeovers
(we are talking pre-platters here), always had things in frame, in focus. At the time I entered the field the union still had the majority of the houses in town and the older guys were generally good, knew how to run a good professional show and cared.
Their sons were another matter all together. This being the 70s, these were baby-boomer hippie wanna-bees who had this job because Dad connected them down at the Union hall and they couldn’t have cared less. I wanted to join, but had no direct family member in the local already, and really liking projection/the business and having the aptitude didn’t count for much, family connections did. It was an easy job that paid well, the long haired second-gen hippies could afford lots of drugs and take them at work and remain functional, and that gravy train gradually came to an end. I feel for the few good, craftsmen of the Simplex-XL I knew, they were pretty much on their way to retirement. It was good riddance for their kids, who were poster children for why the Union died and the chains moved the sharpest usher up into the booth. As a previous poster noted, it happened to just about every other profession that used to be a Union stronghold, and in some ways the Unions themselves stopped looking out for their own when imported goods started flooding our stores. There was a time in the 70s and 80s when you had your choice between consumer goods made in the US, many by Union labor, and imported goods that were cheaper in price. The Union faithful shopped price, just like everyone else. At one time in the 40s-50s and early 60s the Union could just tell their members to boycott any business that didn’t play ball, and in their numbers that boycott shut the money faucet off to the offending business and that will get any business owners attention. After the “me” generation took over that concept became too much like work and the Unions preferred to just strike against employers, causing economic hardship with the hand that feeds them.

MPol on July 11, 2008 at 10:02 pm

Although, as I said before, that this sounds like a sad story, it’s also a very interesting one, because the fact that unions have been pretty much spurned here in the United States for almost 40 years (the decline of unions in this country actually began in the late 1960’s, when Nixon took power, and then continued to snowball, and, for the past 25 years, we’ve really begun to see the consequences) imo, clearly helps explain why the movie theatre experience isn’t what it used to be, and why there are so many non-professionals working the projectors who don’t know what they’re doing due to improper training. This, I believe, has all but killed the movie business, which is really unfortunate, because, imho, there’s nothing greater than taking an opportunity to be out of the house in the evenings or whatever and seeing movies on a great big, wide screen, in a real movie theatre, with the lights down low, and sharing the experience with lots of other people, whether one knows them or not.

Simon Overton
Simon Overton on July 15, 2008 at 11:04 am

My 8 years (1990’s) at San Francisco’s infamous Castro Theatre always had union projectionist’s; I recall Hal and John.

They were totally consummate professionals operating a very neat and clean booth. All shows started on time as did the lovely curtains at The End. I really miss that place!

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on July 15, 2008 at 7:30 pm

“Alameda Theatre cuts corners with non-union workers” Its called staying in bsns……..

JohnRice on July 15, 2008 at 8:51 pm

“Alameda Theatre cuts corners with non-union workers” Its called staying in business……."

Some of us think that it’s quite possible to hire competent projection personnel, be they union or non union, and still stay in business. It actually works for a few local theaters that I know of, the Grand Lake for instance. The Alameda unfortunately still appears to be a bit unclear on that concept. Is the film being in focus and framed properly too much to ask for our meager $10 admission and $4 (small) Cokes?

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on July 16, 2008 at 6:43 pm

You dont need a union to get that!

JohnRice on July 16, 2008 at 10:39 pm

“You dont need a union to get that!”

Right! Let’s just give one of the auto-focus oriented popcorn selling kids an extra 50 cents an hour and let him or her run 10 or 20 screens!

I conceded somewhere above that union membership isn’t necessary to be a good projectionist but you do have to have some conscientious, increasingly tech savy personnel in your booth. The state of modern day multiplex projection is pathetic. I could tell you horror stories all day long and I spent a good deal of time in projection rooms in my younger days (non union at that!) so I sort of know what I’m talking about.

All most of us are asking is for the Alameda to get it’s act together and give us a good film presentation. Nice new theater but their projection sucks! Most of us don’t much care if it’s union or non union…just do it right!

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on July 16, 2008 at 10:50 pm

My problem was with the headline above…….As is if that is the only way to have a great presentation.

MPol on July 19, 2008 at 4:37 pm

From what I’ve read and heard, however, Jwr, the fact that many, if not most of the movie theatre projectionists are not unionized has contributed a great deal to the problems that’ve been plaguing the movie industry as well as many other things for years. Because the movie projectionists are often not unionized, they are often poorly trained and/or non-professionals or young college or high school kids working summer jobs and handling ultra-sophisticated movie-theatre equipment that’s really only meant to be handled by professionals. Non-unionized projectionists are often poorly-paid, and inexperienced, because they’ve had little to no chance of honing their craft. As other members of this forum have pointed out, too, theatre movie projection is an art that entails far more than just simply started up the film reels and letting them go until the end of the movie(s) in question. Professional and unionized projectionists are far more likely to do it right due to better training, better conditions and their having had more opportunity to hone their craft.

movietheatres on July 31, 2008 at 6:21 am

Respectfully to all persons commenting here, as someone who has served as a Projectionist at theatres local to this at issue, know many of these IATSE projectionists including Marty personally, you really don’t need a Union Projectionist to have a quality presentation. You need QUALITY EQUIPMENT and a consistent training and procedural ethic.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, it is true that the only Full Time Union Houses Left are the Grand Lake and Orinda Theatres. Many in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and a couple of other scattered do use Part Time Union Projectionists, more so as a concession to the Political Sentiments of the powers that be in those cities vs. a commitment to a quality presentation.

The sad fact and truth is that the following correlation exists; Union Houses have inferior equipment on the whole vs non union Houses because of the additional cost of the Union personnel. While the equipment at the full time Union locations is kept in truly top notch repair by the Union operators (I have seen them personally and can attest to this) the equipment is far behind the times of standard. In the case of the Orinda Theatre specifically, of the 3 auditoriums only one, ONLY ONE has digital sound, and that auditorium has low-back fixed seats without cup holders. In 2008! The Orinda Theatre runs short schedules in the Summertime, meaning 3 and in some cases just 2 shows per day of a film. Why? Not because there is not a demand. And not because its in a poor location, its in a Retail shopping square with its own underground parking garage, bustling with people all day long with a BART (thats our local Light Rail system) station within spitting distance of the theatre. The operator of the theatre restricts his schedule due to the additional cost of running with Union Projectionists for the added hours.

And speaking to the replete comment and opinion that the booths of non union theatres being manned by “poorly trained high school kids” is a myth. I have yet to see any theatre chain allow any staff under 18 years of age to operate a film projector. And of those who do operate them, there is a rigorous training/certification process that is in place.

While I am personally touched to see the IATSE group organize to picket the Alameda Theatre as it only now breaths again due to the City of Alameda’s checkbook, it should be noted that this theatre is an Independent, not part of a Chain, not owned by the Corporate Monopolyplex Obsessed chains that have WalMarted the business of Cinema. The independents in the San Francisco Bay Area (of which you can count essentially on one hand) have a huge challenge in not only competing with the Mega Chains which surround them, but also competing with public perception that a Big Chain is a more quality presentation. While the owners are greedy, especially the operator of the Orinda/Grand Lake, so much more could be accomplished by taking on the Big Guys.

Why doesn’t the Union organize and picket any of these chains? Why doesn’t the Union push their own theatres to spend a couple bucks on Equipment or Marketing to actually compete vs concede? The worst that could happen is that they end up sending some of the persons from these megachains to the independents who can then see the quality experience…oh wait that’s right, the experience even if every element there presently functions 100% is inferior vs the chains. PICK A FIGHT WITH THE CAUSE OF THE PROBLEM…NOT THE NEW SMALL FRY THAT’S TRYING TO COMPETE WITH AND GIVE THE PUBLIC AN OPTION FROM THE PROBLEM. The RHEEM theatre in Moraga just changed hands without the Union…where’s the picket line? The Elmwood in Berkeley changed hands late last year..wheres the Picket line?

REGAL OWNS 50% OF THE NATIONS SCREENS…WHERE’S THE PICKET LINE??? Oh that’s right…it’s off on the Island of alameda picketing a restored Movie Palace that’s locally and independently owned and operated.

You think it takes a Union Hand to have a quality experience? Since assembling a film is just spinning it to the end, looking at the last picture, counting to four and cutting it, then getting the next reel, spinning it to the first picture, counting to four and cutting that, taping it together, spinning that reel on, then rinse and repeat 5-7 times, it takes a pulse, patience, and eyes to do this. And since once you thread the film through the projector, you need only push start on an automation box (YES even in the all union houses) it doesn’t take a union person to do this either. “ULTRA SOPHISTICATED EQUIPMENT?” A projector is basically a lamp with a bulb and a lens.

The Park Theatre in Lafayette was Union, sold and closed in 2005. The Oaks was union, sold and now essentially a sub run house which will close as soon as their current lease is up, the Northside is gone, the Act 1 & 2 is gone, the Metro in San Francisco is gone, the Galaxy too, and Regency 1 & 2. How many more classic venues must fall before the greedy owners and the greedy union pull their heads back from the nether-regions and get on the same page?

The business is a race. You put a young driver behind the wheel of a brand new hot rod vs Al Unser Jr. in a used Honda the new car’s going to win the race. TAKE ON THE CORE OF THE PROBLEM.

JohnRice on July 31, 2008 at 8:50 am

The promised article about the Alameda’s projection problems is in this week’s edition of the East Bay Express. I think it’s a pretty good and well balanced article. You can read it on line here:

View link

JDC seems to think it’s just a simple job to prepare the films and run a good show (“it takes a pulse, patience and eyes”). If that’s the case I do wonder why the Alameda is still having all those problems. I would however agree that union membership is not a prerequisite for being a good projectionist. I was a non union projectionist in the carbon arc lamp/changeover days, learned the craft while in the Army, and would put my skills and pride in running a good show against any union man, not that some of those union guys didn’t also do a damn good job back in those days. Union or non union you do have to have some good training though and some good work ethics too. Loving movies probably helps!

The bottom line is that as audience members, especially in these days of $10 tickets and $5 popcorn, we do have the right to expect a good presentation regardless of who is minding those many projectors up there. We expect the picture in focus and in frame and the sound level to be at an appropriate level at all times. If there is a problem (and there should be few of them!) we want it to be promptly corrected. I don’t think that’s too much to ask and based on my experience and other people’s experience at the Alameda they are continuing to receive failing grades in the presentation department. That’s too bad because otherwise it’s a very nice multiplex and a great asset to downtown Alameda.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on June 15, 2010 at 6:53 pm

I am a I.A. member i saw Union jobs going out the door with the first Platter.Better start learning Stage or Film jobs like me.

You must login before making a comment.

New Comment