The projector at Ashland Street Cinemas displays the movie 'Clover Field.' Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch

Reel life

The 20-foot-high face of actor Michael Stahl-David bobs on the screen as Jason Coats goes about his business in a projection room at Ashland Street Cinemas.

With his work finished on threading the "Cloverfield" reel and the audience gripped by its sights and sounds in the room below, Coats strolls to another projector 30 feet away and laces through the ribbon-thin, licorice-black celluloid for another movie, "27 Dresses."

Coats, 34, will work in tandem with another projectionist to fill the movie screens on this Thursday with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Nicholas Cage and Johnny Depp.

It's a fun job, Coats says, particularly when you consider that he sometimes gets to stay late into the night after everyone's gone home and watch film reels he's built, checking for flaws.

"I like building the movies. Sometimes I'll put a trailer in that I really want to see," says Coats, who grew up in the Eugene area.

Audiences can see Coats' handiwork — you just have to look for it.

Every 20 minutes or so, a black dot flashes in the top right-hand corner of the screen. This is where Coats has spliced the five to seven 2,000-foot reels that make up a motion picture.

Once the film is put together, including the trailers, it rests on a "platter," which looks like a personal-pan pizza tray for Goliath. The loaded platter weighs about 75 pounds and feeds the projector. As the threaded film travels to the projector, it comes in upside down and the image is flipped. After zipping through the projector, the film automatically rewinds onto another platter.

Modern-day platters are important, Coats says, because they allow for a movie on a single spool, meaning one projector can show the entire film and one projectionist can run movies on several screens at the same time.

"Once the film is built, it only takes a couple of minutes to set up the projector," he says.

Movie houses don't use DVDs because of industry security concerns, Coats says, particularly since someone could easily get their hands on a new feature film, copy it and distribute it "over and over and over."

On this day, as "Cloverfield" plays below and the audience braces for a monster's attack on New York City, Coats hovers over a stack of reels — each is about 20 minutes of film — for the new "Rambo" movie starring Sylvester Stallone. On the "building table" in the projection room, he pulls film from one reel, places it in a splicer, adds tape to fasten an opposite reel, punches the needed holes for the projector and he's done.

The room is fully lit (Coats assures visitors that the small amount of secondary light coming through the projector window goes virtually unnoticed by audience members below) and the click-clack and buzzing whir of the projector overpowers the boom of audio inside the theater as unsuspecting New York partiers await their fate in the movie. In the corner, where the massive Christie Xenolite projector chugs away, all that stands between the audience and the din coming from above is a small piece of thick, clear glass.

Coats admits that he often thinks about the projectionist when he goes to other theaters to see films.

"I know what to look for," he says. "I look for the dots."

Former projectionist Mark Edwards, 37, is director of purchasing and maintenance for Coming Attractions Theatres Inc., which operates the Ashland Street Cinemas, the Varsity Theatre in downtown Ashland and 18 other theaters in three states.

Edwards says it's rare to see a movie reel break in the middle of the show, but it's happened.

"In the 15 years I was a projectionist, I had three," he says.

In those 15 years, Edwards says he saw thousands of films, from Academy Award winners to flat-out duds.

"But you generally don't have the time to sit and watch them. I tell people that I've seen a lot of movies. I just haven't seen the whole thing."

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