Nick Lazarro: A Projectionist Changing the Film Scene

coolidge corner theater nick lazarro

If you haven’t been to the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline you are seriously missing out on one of the best moviegoer experiences in the world. The Coolidge is not your typical multiplex, and the movies screened here may be harder to find in other places. Specializing in smaller, more independent movies, along with special prints of some older and sometimes lost films, the Coolidge Corner is concerned with giving moviegoers a true “experience” that is hard to find in this day of Netflix, smartphones and big budget studio movie domination.

One of the leaders of what the Coolidge is trying to do is Nick Lazzaro, who has been with the Coolidge Foundation for over 9 years and is the head projectionist. As you’ll see, you will encounter few people as passionate about cinema and the movie going experience as Nick is. There is always something fun and exciting coming up at the Coolidge. If you have ever wondered what is going on up in that little booth where your movie is coming from, IM Boston was lucky enough to be given a tour, with Nick as our guide.

“After graduating from art school at the Museum of Fine Arts, I started working for Kaiju Big Battle, which is like pro-wrestling meets Godzilla. ‘Kaiju’ is Japanese for ‘mysterious beast’. They do live multimedia performances with choreographed wrestling matches. I was their in house video editor. As you can imagine, there isn’t a lot of money in the mysterious beast market and I found myself in need of a full-time job, so I applied at the theater. I just applied in the lobby, thinking I would be making popcorn, but the hiring manager passed my resume on to Matt Gress, who was the head projectionist at the time, and he ended up taking me on as an apprentice. A lot has changed since nine years ago when I started.”

“At that time, everything was on 35mm film and there were only 2 screens. Now there are four screens that mainly run high quality video. Video at the time had no standard. Around 2011, there was the Digital Cinema Initiative to standardize video, which was a good thing, but the way it was implemented was quite messy. The conversion from film to video was quite expensive for all our screens to conform to these new standards. This building is over a hundred years old and the upkeep in a place like this is already pretty expensive, but we pulled it off.”

“Many years ago, there was a strong projectionists’ union in Boston. When you started off, you would be in what they called “The Combat Zone”. The Combat Zone is what they used to call the theater district. It used to be sleazy and dangerous. Back then they were all using film. You start out and pay your dues in the combat zone running pornography. After awhile, you might be able to move into a more respectable theater and you would be part of this union and they would schedule you wherever you go. That’s how the trade used to be. You had to have a complete understanding of everything you were doing. There’s no other way of teaching this stuff than having the experience of it.”

“There is a tradition to the booth. The things we have learned can only be taught down by word of mouth. There is a small handful of us that work with film, but its a tight knit community. It’s not many, but it is a well spring relative to other cities in the country and the world. When it comes to projection, we need each other for the details and unique issues that come up sometimes. There are so many little things to remember in every single room, let alone every single theater. What I was taught as a film projectionist I have had to transfer to digital. At least once a day, something doesn’t automate correctly. Having that constant process and observing every step of the automation allows projectionists to know what to do if something doesn’t work properly. In that way, I’m sort of keeping that torch going.”

“The show starts are all the same and we still do a traditional presentation with the image being projected on a curtain that opens up to the screen so that there is never a naked screen. All that traditional stuff is still in play. For those that want to learn film, I’m super excited to show them, but there’s a lot of hoops I make them jump through because your reputation of showing film is so important. When I was learning, if you damage reel 5, they could just send you another one. Nowadays, if you get a reputation for shredding prints, you’re not going to get loaned these prints anymore. Everything we show now is from either private collectors or really nice archives. For some of these classic films there is only one original print left. () Prints are so infrequently loaned out, I often see my own writing on the same prints when they come back to us. The film leaves here hopefully better than it arrived. We’re going to inspect it, check all the splices and repair any damage we can.”

“I think everyone in the booth at some point has some work anxiety dream. You’re here in the booth a lot and especially in the first few years, there is a lot of pressure to not screw up. There is always this underlying fear of failure. People don’t really notice the job you’re doing unless there is something going wrong and then everyone is looking up towards the booth. With film, you are sitting with the movie the whole time.”

“I am by no means a master, but now I know so much more than people who are interested or are just getting started in all this stuff do. I’m just this link to the past. It bums me out when I don’t know the answers, because that information is lost to time. I can try to look stuff up online, but no one knows for sure. It takes commitment to the quality of the film and the treatment of the print and all that stuff. Here, you’re going to a special place where people take care of the film and you as an audience member are being taken care of.”

“The magic is in the details. Even the little things like using real butter on the popcorn or our soda having actual sugar in it are awesome. I know most people don’t notice little things like that or appreciate it, but deep down I know that everyone is getting something better out of it. That speaks to the kind of commitment that this place has. The details elevate everything. Not in a pretentious way, but keep it special. Why do we go to the movies to communally experience something? That’s always in our brains and always part of our mission here. Maintain this thing that we do together rather than mess around on your phone all the time. Come see a movie with someone. Talk about it afterwards. Respect each other. There’s something almost sacred about all this.”

“The challenge of the day is why this job is so cool. That is the appeal to me. Its always evolving and new issues are always coming up. When you learn something and overcome a challenge, one answer leads to five more questions. Now that I know this much, I realize that I don’t know this much. The constant challenge is what keeps me engaged. We need to be straddling the old technology while keeping up with the new. You have to embrace and try to elevate the things that are changing.”

Go check out a film at the Coolidge Corner Theatre at 290 Harvard St in Brookline:

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