Some boys fall in love with machines that go 100 mph, some with things that go boom. John Sevier Austin fell in love with a machine that goes around and around on an endless loop. That affair led to long and happy nights in the darkened upper rooms of movie theaters – and at last, to “The Projection Room.”
The documentary gets a free public debut Monday at The Gem in Kannapolis, where much of it was shot. Austin, who looks a decade younger than his 42 years, will get a public vindication of a rare childhood dream.
“As a boy, I was told, ‘You should be playing football.’ Nobody cared how I felt about film projectors,” he says. “But being close to those machines made me feel like I was part of the show, part of Hollywood.”
He can say that accurately now, not only because he has founded a company – Blackbeak Films, named for the birds he has raised all his life – but because at 38, he took off for California to attend Los Angeles Film School. He came back to Charlotte last summer, snared a job with ESPN and started this documentary.
It packs a lot into a lucid hour, including a history lesson about exhibition and cinematography. Yet it’s more than that. It’s also a gentle elegy for the art that has died off with digital projection and a kind of “Cinema Paradiso Charlotte,” a touching story of a kid who found a mentor.
The kid is 11-year-old Austin, seen in 1981 footage from the old Capri on Independence Boulevard. (It’s now the club Hush.) His mentor is projectionist John Evans. “He was a surrogate father to me,” says Austin. “His passion for projection caught hold of me.
“My composer, Trifon Koutsourelis, told me he thought the film was ‘romantic.’ At first, I didn’t get that,” says Austin. “Now I do.”
Evans is just one of a crew of people who recall the old days in “The Projection Room.” The late Ralph Perry, a salty character who began his career running machinery at Charlotte’s Carolina Theatre in the 1920s, weighs in. So do Gem manager Steve Morris and repair wizard John Shaver.
All can recall the days when twin projectors spun in booths, and unseen technicians adroitly alternated reels between them. A title card, “The Most Thankless Job in the World,” says it all: No one noticed these guys until a film went kablooey.
Later, films unspooled from enormous single platters, but projectionists still had to splice reels together correctly to mount them on that disc. Today, a digital signal activates the movie.
“Directors of photography prefer colors you get with film to digital (video),” says Austin. “But a theater audience won’t notice that slight difference in artistic quality. It will notice the scratches and splices that show up on a film a month into the run. A digital print looks the same every time.”
Life in the booth
Austin knows whereof he speaks. He projected movies at the Manor, Matthews Festival, Charlottetowne, Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse and Arboretum in the old days. Recently he ran the superb system at Los Angeles Film School, where the likes of Jeff Bridges and Terry Gilliam came to show pictures.
Austin’s next project takes him down a new path: He’ll edit a short about a woman whose baby and husband are killed by a texting driver in director Rafael Cimino’s “High Order.” Meanwhile, he’ll submit “The Projection Room” to festivals and hone his deal-making skills.
“(Projectionists) are often socially inept,” he says. “The booth is a safe place, a place for solitary people, but it can also be very lonely there. I’ve always been a little awkward, but I’m making great strides.”