Reel Life: As Movies Reopen, Projectionist Looks Back at Nearly 50 Years in the Booth

You and I, we stream "movies" at home. Maybe not so long ago, we went to the movie theater.

Not John Sittig. He goes to the pictures.

When asked, Sittig, 72, will tell you he's the "director of projection and sound for Reading Cinemas in the United States." He's been in the projection booth for 46 years, working for a time in Hollywood, even. A great year to start in the booth -- "The Godfather Part II," "Chinatown" and "Young Frankenstein" all came out in 1974.

"I love film," Sittig said. "I can't say how much I love film. My wife, my two kids, and film, ok? In that order. I feel a relationship with film. It's tangible. I can touch it. I can take care of it."

Reading Cinemas brought its director of projection and sound to La Mesa for its reopening with the 70mm showing of the new Christopher Nolan film, "Tenet."

Nobody knows, of course, whether the pandemic will be final indignity for movie theaters but what we do know is that on Thursday, for the first time in Southern California, Reading Cinemas Grossmont will be loading up a 70mm copy of "Tenet," the much-buzzed-about new release from action auteur Christopher Nolan, who most recently gave us "Dunkirk." That's why the shirt-sleeved Sittig drove down from Corona and was in Reading Cinemas' cramped projector booth on Wednesday with a handful of guys who were muscling the massive print onto the projector equipment.

Sittig said that 70mm film runs at 108 feet per minute, and that because of the 2.5-hour running time of "Tenet," the reel holds about 16,000 feet of film -- in the neighborhood of 3 miles. The print they hoisted at Grossmont costs between $25,000 and $30,000.

"Everybody that's playing digital… it costs about $10 to wipe [a] hard drive of whatever movie was on it before and putting 'Tenet' on it," Sittig said.

John Sittig

That's a lot of tickets, of course. At the lower end, that print has to sell nearly 2,100 tickets -- or 21 restricted-capacity Red Tier showings -- to recoup its cost.

The pandemic has been hard on everyone and almost every industry, of course, but it has hit the movie theaters harder than most, since they had to shut down entirely.

"It's been very difficult [for me]," Sittig said. "It's been very difficult for the industry because we still pay rent, we still pay some employees to stay on and so forth…. We can only sell 25% of the seats, not to exceed 100, so in the 70mm theater here -- it seats 500 people -- there's only gonna be a hundred. A hundred is a sellout. And this is such a big picture, we'd love to sell 500 seats, but, you know, for the safety of our employees and our customers, that's what we're doing."


JOHN SITTIG'S TOP 10 FILMS LIST

  • Ben Hur (70mm)
  • Lawrence of Arabia (70mm)
  • It's a Mad Mad, Mad, Mad World (70mm)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (70mm)
  • Citizen Kane
  • The Lady Eve
  • The Longest Day
  • The Ten Commandments
  • Singin' in the Rain
  • La La Land

With his thinning gray hair and square tortoise-shell glasses, Sittig is the senior member in the projection booth on Wednesday, joined by several Reading employees, including his son, Adam, who is a digital technician for Reading Cinemas but also works as a projectionist himself at the Fleet Science Center in San Diego, where he helms the IMAX showings. The theater business is in the Sittig family's lifeblood. Sittig's wife, to whom he's been married for 35 years, met him at a theater he managed.

"She was an employee at one of my theaters -- that's one of the things about being a theater manager," Sittig said. "Because of the fact that we always work weekends and holidays, it is not conducive to regular dating. You want to go out on a Friday or Saturday night? Well, theater managers are working."

Folks who meet Sittig probably won't be surprised to learn that the couple's first date was at the Fox Village Theater in Westwood. They saw the Barbra Streisand film "Yentl." Not every movie is great, of course.

It all started for Sittig in 1954 with "Genevieve" -- for most, a forgettable British road-rally comedy. Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, the youngster really lost it at the movies several years later, when his film-loving parents took him on a trip.

Local theaters are getting ready to welcome patrons this holiday weekend for the first time in months. NBC 7's Audra Stafford reports.

"The picture that really cemented my love for film was a picture called 'This Is Cinerama,' " Sittig said. "It was the first of widescreen movies, and my parents drove a hundred miles to see it 'cause it was only playing in 30 theaters in the world. 'Cinerama' had three projectors to project an ultrawide screen movie, and the first scene is riding on a roller-coaster. I can still remember where I was sitting in that theater, and I've had a love of 'Cinerama' in particular ever since."

Looking back on a career that spans nearly a half-century, Sittig acknowledged that his craft is rapidly becoming a lost art, other than when certain big-name directors like pulp master Quentin Tarantino and Nolan demand an analog 70mm print in a digital world.

"The evolution -- you have technology changes," Sittig said. "The first sound films were on a disc. The sound wasn't on the film, and that lasted about two years before they put a soundtrack on film…. So you went to see 'The French Connection,' 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' -- they were all in mono sound. Today, everything comes out in six-channel digital. So, it's just a natural evolution, but it's nice to go back every once in a while to the roots, and those two filmmakers, in particular, are very conscious of that."

Sittig believes that the 70mm print of "Tenet" will be a magnet for movie lovers, since, with Los Angeles still marooned in COVID's Purple Tier, La Mesa's Grossmont theater is the closest option for any Southern Californian to see the big print on the big screen.

"There are a lot of film fanatics that want to see it on film," Sittig said. "I equate this to people who like to hear their music with vacuum tubes and on vinyl…. Film has a warmness to it that digital doesn't, and although digital looks beautiful and pristine, it does have a little bit of an artificial look to it. It's almost too perfect. And film is not perfect. You see a little bit of grain, you might see a little bit of jitter and weave or something…."

The first 70mm showing at Reading Cinemas Grossmont theater was at noon on Thursday, with later showings at 3:40 p.m. and 7:20 p.m. Filmgoers can also watch "Tenet" blasted through a digital projector in 11 other showings at Redding on Thursday, but where's the fun in that?

"Film is not gonna come back but, hopefully, every once in awhile, we'll be able to see something on film," Sittig said.

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