With his new film set to celebrate 100 years of film history in Birmingham, Electric Cinema owner Tom Lawes discusses the end of an era with Graham Young.
There’s something entirely appropriate about Tom Lawes, dressed in jeans and black leather jacket, sitting at the back of Screen 1 of his own Electric Cinema on one of its luxurious, black leather sofas.
In every sense, timeless is the word.
Britain’s oldest working cinema had already been saved by Tom and a close network of supporters in 2004, well ahead of its centenary at the end of December 2009.
Then, on November 10, 2011, came one of the most momentous days in its history, when the cinema’s traditional 35mm projector whirred into action for the last time.
Now Tom is almost ready to put the icing on the cake of a 21st century dream, with the premiere of his very own high definition, all-digital movie, The Last Projectionist.
From June 22, the documentary will be offering an almost surreal history of 100 years of ever-changing movie-going in Birmingham.
As well as featuring previously unseen old footage, some of which was literally found on the roof of the Station Street building, the story is also told through the eyes, minds and souls of a lost generation of projectionists now falling victim to the unrelenting march of technology.
If things had never changed, we would all be in danger of being burned alive in cinemas because of highly-combustible nitrate prints.
The twin-screen Electric has not only survived that era, but changing tastes, fashions and fads, too.
From its silent beginnings in 1909, when the Cinematograph Act led to permanent cinemas replacing travelling showmen, it has been everything from a wartime news and cartoon cinema in the 40s to a porn cinema in the 80s.
Tom’s background is in film production and film music composition, so he used his multi-disciplinary skills to direct, edit, grade and sound-mix The Last Projectionist.
He also scored it – and the music was then recorded by his own Electric Cinema Film Orchestra. As you do.
“The great thing about digital is that it allows microbudget film-making to complete, technically at least, with much higher budget pictures,” says Tom.
The film was originally finished in June last year. Tom then left it until its first public screening at the Cambridge Film Festival last September.
Watching it fresh, and with an audience, led him back to the edit suite for a final cut.
He wanted to better balance the film’s twin themes – cinema history in general and the Electric’s history in particular – and the way they are wrapped around his main thrust, that we’re nearing the end of the road for traditional projectionists at cinemas everywhere.
The story begins with a group of veteran projectionists sitting round a table in the nearby Victoria pub. Tom provided the beers and let the likes of Phil Fawke, John Brockington, Paul Curtin, Les Castree and Graham Lee (still working at Millennium Point’s Giant Screen Cinema) empty their memory banks.
Like the film itself, they are caught in a schizophrenic world between an undying love for the past and the often brilliant reality of the present, which could spell the end of 35mm prints nationwide before the dawn of 2014.
Tom, who is even using the advantages of the new era to keep the fim’s distribution in-house, uses his production notes to point out how it “used to take five years to train men like these... Today, it can take an hour”.
Picture quality has improved tremendously, but not everything is perfect in this automated Garden Of Eden, thanks to human error.
“Multiplexes often show (digital, non projectionist) films in the wrong aspect ratio (size and proportion),” says Tom. “And audiences will sit and watch, not knowing it’s wrong.
“I saw a film in a multiplex the other day where it was wrong on day three... Had it been like that every day?
“Here we check everything and the staff care about what people think.
“Staff at big companies don’t have the same sense of personal responsibilities and that ‘distance’ is the same in any company.
“We are small enough for everybody to know each other and we don’t want to let people down.
“Films come with a recommended sound level, but we choose our own, so we might turn the ads down and the film up.”
Even at the Electric, though, things can – and do – still go wrong.
A traditional projector had a habit of letting a trained operator know when part of it was on its last legs and he’d have a good work-around temporary solution – either in stock or up his sleeve of ingenuity.
A digital projector will just “die” unexpectedly. And it might need someone from London to diagnose the fault accurately.
“In some ways, it’s easier to fix a 35mm projector because you can just bodge it,” laughs Tom.
“There would always be a network of guys with spanners. Les once brought the entire front of a projector along on the bus.
“With digital, you can be locked out of a machine just by an engineer’s pin codes.
“I am very au fait with computers and can build them, but you haven’t got that frustration with 35mm.”
Talking about the editorial balance of his film, Tom admits: “I found I was using some of the 1930s’ footage just because I had it.
“Similarly, if it had just been about the technical side, it could have been boring.
“So I decided I also wanted to show the projectionists as individuals and personalities. I wanted to capture their eccentricities.
“Every cinema you go to, there would be a new set of stories. It’s remarkable, really.”
A lot of cinemas used to rely on arts funding, and many have gone to the wall.
But the survivors which have often been saved with private money, like The Electric, have developed good, working relationships with organisations like the Independent Cinema Office.