The Projectionist is a lovely elegy for the glory days of film exhibition, one that 2020 has brought into surprising focus.
Since getting clean a few years ago, Abel Ferrara has been remarkably productive. Interspersed between more ambitious projects (such as this year’s Tomasso and the yet-to-be-released Siberia), Ferrara made time for this documentary portrait of Nick Nicolaou, a Cyprus-born immigrant who made his name (and what appears to be a good chunk of money) in the movie exhibition game in the rough-and-tumble Times Square of the ’70s. The Projectionist is a small film in the best sense of the word, intimate and engaging, as it documents gentrification and the corporatization of the movie theater business through the lens of one man’s lifelong journey with the movies.
Nick Nicolaou is a genial, surprisingly soft-spoken guy, a wistful look in his eye as he walks Ferrara through his early life in a quiet fishing village before making his way to the big city. In love with movie magic, Nicolaou starts out as an usher, gradually working his way up the ladder until he is eventually managing multiple locations and making cash deals to become a property owner. It’s a quintessential American immigrant story, and for his part, Ferrara stays largely offscreen, allowing Nicolaou to command the movie. Of course, Nicolaou’s oral history includes lots of stories of a pre-Guiliani New York, where one could still make a killing playing pornos, both gay and straight. To his credit, Nicolaou doesn’t talk down to the seedier side of the theater business; it’s all the same to him — movies as a communal way to bring people together — and he’s clear-eyed about the fact that less reputable product paid the bills and allowed him to play more artistic fare at his upscale locations.
Aesthetically speaking, a lot of The Projectionist is simple man-on-the-street stuff, along with straightforward talking-head interviews. But Ferrara mixes things up by occasionally cutting to brief clips of outré movies; there’s lots of vintage porn, scenes from Robert Downey Sr’s Putney Swope, Ken Russell’s The Devils, Taxi Driver, Blade Runner, Ferrara’s own The Driller Killer, and some assorted Pasolini, amongst others. Ferrara is savvy enough to recognize this documentary as a kind of auto-portrait of himself, as it parallels his own trajectory from the grindhouse (not for nothing was Ferrara’s first film a porno) to something approximating arthouse respectability. There’s some lovely archival footage here, even for non-native New Yorkers — bustling streets lined with theater marquees stretch as far as the eye can see, a golden age of film history. Of course, things inevitably change; Nicolaou details the arrival of the giant Cineplex Odeon, a Canadian company that swooped in and acquired copious amounts of real estate in a massive expansion that, for a time, made them one of the largest exhibitors in the world. Sitting in the office of one of the independent locations he still owns, Nicolaou laments how difficult it was, and still is, to book premium content while trying to keep prices low. Even porn stops being lucrative, as the advent of the VCR quickly dried up that revenue stream.
Ferrara opens The Projectionist with a glimpse of street performers dressed up like Iron Man and a Transformer, before lingering on a giant LED billboard for Blade Runner 2049, a succinct encapsulation of the corporate entities that rule over the modern-day cinematic landscape. Ferrara and Nicolaou tour the sites of long-vanished movie palaces, reminiscing about how long the lines would be. It’s a graveyard tour of sorts, a nostalgic elegy that is tempered by both regret and hard-won experience. Nicolaou made good on his dream; the tragedy, Ferrara seems to suggest, is that it’s all but impossible to follow those same footsteps now. Neither man could have anticipated their film opening in our current, pandemic-ravaged exhibition wasteland. As a majority of theaters remain closed and the giant chains announce mass layoffs in a bid for government bailouts, The Projectionist might wind up as a final, poetic obituary in more ways than one.