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Save the bulb. Those three words spoken in that order haven’t passed my lips since the winter of ‘98.

Or was it ‘97? Who in hell remembers? That was 6,000 films ago. I was managing a 5-screen art house for the odious folks at Cineplex Odeon. What chance for success do you think art, independent, and/or foreign films had tucked inside Schaumberg, Illinois’ Woodfield Mall? During the Christmas rush, I’d stand in the vacant lobby staring out at the atrium, unable to see the store across the way thanks to the wall-to-wall throng of shoppers. When the Woody Allen doc, Wild Man Blues was about to open, I pleaded with the programmer to book it. It drew 8 people, Not for the first show, but for its entire one-week run. Needless to say, it wasn’t held over.

In order to cut corners, the company decided to replace their pricey union projectionists with inadequately trained managers and assistant managers who would gradually pass on the art of projection to their snot-nosed concessioneers and ticket-rippers.

I’m not kidding when I say that projection is an art. Back in the day, booth operators had to switch reels every 20 minutes or so in addition to juggling white hot carbon rods, the sparked tips of which once provided the source of illumination. Xenon bulbs gradually began replacing carbon arcs in 1963 and in the ‘70’s, platter systems -- one feature could be mounted onto one flatbed core -- appeared on the scene effectively doing away with the need for two projectors.

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A call arrived from corporate early one afternoon informing me that the lockout had begun. We weren’t supposed to leak news of the pending firing, but the two projectionists working the booth were family men who had earned my respect and friendship. I wasn’t about to sandbag them.

The booth door opened and without saying a word, the projectionist smiled and began gathering his possessions. We shook hands and the last thing he said to me, with a wink of his eye, was “Save the bulb.”

The few people who did take in a movie at the Woodfield 5-9 normally did so after a full day’s shopping. They didn’t care when the feature started -- they were just looking for a cool (or warm) place to rest their arches for a couple of hours. Xenon bulbs are expensive. Whenever there was an empty house, which was often the case, we were instructed to start the movie without turning on the lamp housing, thus saving the bulb. If and when patrons did arrive, we’d scurry up to the booth, flip the light switch, and open the douser.

I’ve been pretty good when it comes to covering films at the Media Arts Center’s Digital Gym and cannot thank them enough for keeping up the dying tradition of press screenings. As both a critic and lifelong lover of movies, places like the Digital Gym have always held a special place in my heart. Two of the finest films I’ve seen this year have been at the Gym, so it’s my privilege and duty to alert people of a new screening venue in town.

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Sadly, few of my colleagues feel any urgent need to spread the word about this wonderful new facility. It’s funny how whenever a new comic book atrocity screens, you’re fortunate if you can find a seat, what with all the so-called critics who turn up out of the woodwork to be the first on their block to see the latest installment of brain-dead thrills. With the exception of an occasional appearance by Fox 5’s Josh Board and Jean Lowerison from the Review Express, I frequently have the room to myself.

Such was the case this morning when I arrived for their screening of Laurence Anyways, a 167 minute Canadian drama. As much as I love showing up at a public screening only to find myself the sole patron in the auditorium, part of me feels guilty when it happens at a press prevue. It’s not as though the Media Arts Center has the deep pockets of say AMC or Edwards and can afford to waste time showing a picture to an audience of one.

“Do you have a Blu-ray player?” the Gym’s PR coordinator Martha Cardona asks. “Save the bulb,” I told her as I took the disc and headed home to hold the San Diego premier of Laurence Always in my living room.

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