Since its reopening as a nonprofit in 1999, more than a half million people have seen a movie on the Belcourt’s big screen. What most of them have never seen, though, is the man who puts them there.
Kirk Futrell has been one of those men at the Belcourt Theatre for the past 12 years. The popular independent film house is now a symbol of Nashville culture, but that doesn’t make Futrell’s profession any less of an endangered species. Art house films are popular, and a growing number of people prefer them to big-budget blockbusters. But it’s important to remember that Futrell is still every bit an artisan, someone doing a once-common job with knowledge that’s now totally uncommon. He and his team of projectionists have a deep understanding of ever-changing cinema exhibition that isn’t just a plus – it’s a necessity.
Going behind the scenes
As Head Projectionist, Futrell has spent much of his professional life alone in dark, mysterious rooms, but not to worry – he hasn’t gone all Hoarders or Hannibal. In fact, being the man behind the curtain hasn’t removed him from the action at all; it’s allowed him to see the millions of personal connections that people make with movies every day, and that’s what keeps him doing what he does.
“As any projectionist can tell you, you don’t get to watch the movies you show every time,” Futrell says, “but you become really familiar with the beginning and the end, and you get to see how the film affects people. They never see me, but I hear and see their reactions. It’s gratifying to see the audience appreciating a great movie, even if the filmmaker never knows it happened.”
12 Questions with Kirk Futrell
How did you get started as a film projectionist?
I was an usher in my hometown of Martin, Tenn., when I was 15. I begged them to show me how to thread the projectors until they got tired of hearing about it and taught me.
What kind of training do you have?
Most of my training was on-the-job at Local 364 in Akron, Ohio, one of the last projectionist unions in the country. I learned how to repair and maintain the machines and the importance of “presentation,” which in the film industry means that everything should look and sound as close as possible to what the filmmaker intended. But I hope they don’t read this interview because I probably still owe some union dues.
What’s the best part of your job?
The movies, of course. But one of my favorite moments was during a test screening. I got to sit in the 1925 Hall (named for the year it was built) alone, in the sweet spot – middle of theater, middle of the row – and listen to the opening credits of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The music blew me away.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Since I’m both Head Projectionist and Facility Manager at the Belcourt, the hardest part is taking care of a building that dates back to 1925. There’s always something that needs fixing, and sometimes, given the building’s age, it takes a lot of detective work to figure out what’s wrong. And since the Belcourt’s open 365 days a year, I have to manage repairs around film schedules.
Any Belcourt secrets you can share?
The projection booth in the 1925 Hall was built during the days of highly flammable nitrate film, so the booth has the original fireproofing equipment: steel plates covering the projection portholes and a steel door. If a fire broke out, the steel plates and door would slam shut, regardless of whether or not the projectionist was still inside. I’m pretty happy that has since been disabled.
The booth also has a sink and toilet from back when projectionists had to rewind and thread reels and replace carbon arc rods and might never have a chance to run downstairs when nature came calling.
Has anything ever gone really wrong while you were showing a film?
There are the classics: playing a reel upside down or dropping an entire plattered print (about two miles of film).
But one of the funniest was a filmmaker who was screening his movie for investors. He was nervous and kept coming into the booth to check on things. While trying to get a better look at the screen through the window, his foot hit the bottom run of film, knocking it off its path. Film started piling up on the floor, and you could hear the clatter and the film crunching outside the booth. We got it back up and running pretty fast, but he was pretty embarrassed about sabotaging his own screening.
Ever had to deal with an unruly crowd?
When I worked in Akron, some people came in who must have been drinking. When the MGM lion roared at the beginning of the movie, one of them stood up and started screaming. When I asked him what was going on, he said, “I was just yelling back at the tiger!” Sometimes cocktails and movies don’t mix.
What’s your favorite movie, to watch or to show?
I’m terrible at picking favorites, but seeing a 4K* projection of Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen in the 1925 Hall at the Belcourt was a career highlight, as was The Last Waltz playing on our new sound system.
As far as crowd reactions, my favorite thing is showing It’s A Wonderful Life at Christmas. At the end of the movie, everybody claps, and sometimes they even cheer. It chokes me up every time.
*See bottom of page for 4K For Dummies
What movies have you not been able to show yet that you’d like to?
I’d love to show Queen live at Montreal. I’d also like to show Cabin in the Sky by Vincent Minnelli. Also Intolerance from 1916 by D.W. Griffith. It had the greatest set ever built (it would cost about $47 million to make today) and it would be great to show more movies that were shot before the ’40’s.
Any interesting celebrity guests or patrons?
We get a lot of country stars, but one of the most fun celebrity appearances was when we had the guys from the heavy metal band Anvil. There’s a great documentary about them being on the verge of making it at the same time as Metallica and Anthrax, but it never really panned out for them. We had them come to the screening, and as soon as the movie ended, we slowly raised the screen and they were on stage, behind the screen, playing the first riffs of one of their hit songs. It was awesome to have the reveal of the band that way.
What do you think will happen to the profession of “projectionist” in the future?
“Projectionist” is so closely associated with film, and film is no longer the medium for new releases. But projectionists still have important roles at art house and independent cinemas like the Belcourt — places where the wide variety of formats, from 16mm to Blu-Ray to 4K digital cinema, calls for someone who knows how film works and how to get it on screen as the director intended. In the future, I think projectionists will have to have a wider range of skills in a smaller number of theatres. But people who really love movies will continue to seek out great experiences, and projectionists make that possible.
What makes the Belcourt different from other independent movie theaters?
We do a lot of things right, from the board to the leadership to the programming. But most importantly, it’s how hard we are on ourselves. We’ll have an event or special program, and as far as the audience knows, everything was perfect. But if there’s one thing we think we could have done better, we’re not satisfied. We are not content with good enough.OAuthException: API access deactivated. To reactivate, go to the app dashboard.