Meet Coolidge Corner Theatre’s head projectionist, an artist in a dying trade

Nick Lazzaro didn't always know he wanted to learn how to be a film projectionist. Now, the 31-year-old is one of the last remaining licensed film projectionists around.

Nick Lazzaro lights up running film from his projectionist's booth.
Nick Lazzaro's face lights up when he's running film from his projectionist's booth. –Jean Nagy/Boston.com Staff

Coolidge Corner Theatre’s head projectionist Nick Lazzaro hates James Cameron, the movie director famous for mega hits like Titanic, The Terminator, and Avatar. 

He really hates James Cameron.

“A film projectionist used to be a good middle-class job — a trade job,” Lazzaro said. “But when something like Avatar came out and James Cameron was like, ‘The only way my movie is being shown is through 3D digital technology,’ what he really did was put a huge, huge expense on everyone.”

Lazzaro started working at the Coolidge as an apprentice to Matt Gress, the independent movie house’s former head projectionist. Lazzaro had applied to the Brookline theatre on a whim — he needed money, enjoyed movies — and was pleasantly surprised when Gress asked if he wanted to learn the tricks of a dying trade.

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Eight years later, Lazzaro has taken Gress’s position, but he’s under no illusion that film projection is making a huge comeback, or that licensed projectionists are in high-demand. He’s been extremely fortunate; the James Camerons of the world have done their best to weed him out.

Even those unversed in the language of film history are probably aware that most movies are now projected digitally. This means that instead of finessing 35mm film prints through complicated projectors as finicky as old cars, most projectionists now are responsible for little more than loading hard drives onto servers.

But the Coolidge is different.

The Coolidge Corner Theatre has been open since 1933.
The Coolidge Corner Theatre has been open since 1933. —Jean Nagy/Boston.com Staff

Built in 1933, the Coolidge is widely regarded as one of the nation’s most prominent independently operated movie theatres and is run by the not-for-profit Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation. While hundreds of other independent theatres have shuttered their doors, resigning themselves to a digital future filled with blue-skinned CGI humanoids, the Coolidge has found a happy balance between past and present.

Yes, it shows brand-new blockbuster films like Hail, Caesar!, but it also shows a healthy dose of independent films, documentaries, classics, and late-night programming of “horrifying, weird, camp, avant garde, tripped-out, and cult” films in the “After Midnite” series, often shown from 35mm prints.

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No, it does not have 3D films. Lazzaro would want you to know that.

Boston.com met with Lazzaro to learn about his job, the beauty of film projection, and what makes the Coolidge so special.

Nick Lazzaro apprenticed at the Coolidge before becoming head projectionist.
Nick Lazzaro apprenticed at the Coolidge before becoming head projectionist. —Jean Nagy/Boston.com Staff

Describe your job.

My official title is head projectionist. That’s what the guy before me called it. I’m also an administrator. I hire and train projectionists and theatre techs. I used to train people on film, now I train them digitally first. If they show interest in actual film projection, we start lacing up the projector.

That’s where it gets tricky cause you can’t damage any film, whereas when I was trained, I could make a mistake. It’s a slower process and also this big trust baton I have to pass to them. I make them jump through a ton of hoops if they want to run film. I also do scheduling here and any special programming or events, like this year we branched out and did outdoor film exhibitions. We partnered with the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy and showed 35mm films down by the waterfront.

How did you start working at the Coolidge?

Well, when I first started working here I just came in and applied in the lobby. I was sick of the coffee shop I was working at and needed money.

I went to school for film and shot some 16mm, but it wasn’t just like, oh, I love movies let me do this! I had interest in film. When I applied to the movie theatre, I was like yeah, it would be fun to work at a movie theatre. The hiring manager passed my resume along to Matt Gress and he called me up. He asked, “Are you scared of heights?” and “Do you mind heavy lifting?” and I said, “No,” and that was that. Then it was a long process learning things.

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It took a couple years to feel really confident and I had a lot of work anxiety dreams, like really funny ones where Matt would leave and say, ‘Okay, have a good night!’ And a film would break and everyone in the audience would turn around and look at you. I don’t really have them anymore. I’m confident in my abilities.

The Coolidge Corner Theatre is located at 290 Harvard Street.
The Coolidge Corner Theatre is located at 290 Harvard Street. —Jean Nagy/Boston.com Staff

But what made you want to learn a dying trade?

I don’t f***ing know. Probably the same reason I went to grad school.

It’s really romantic. It’s a tactile job. It’s a real trade — one of the last remaining real trades out there. You have to be a little bit of an electrician, mechanic, and sorcerer because you’re doing this smoke and mirrors optical illusion thing. I think it’s really cool. I love movies so much. The programmer here took over as program manager here around the time I became the full head projectionist. He took over the “Midnite” series and he and I have been programming and running all of the special content. We try not to compromise our integrity. We know certain nostalgia driven titles will bring a lot of people and that sustains the more obscure things we want to show.

Lazzaro said being attentive is one of the most important aspects of being a good film projectionist.
Lazzaro said being attentive is one of the most important aspects of being a good film projectionist. —Jean Nagy/Boston.com Staff

Is it weird being one of the last licensed projectionists around?

What I mean by that is it’s a dying art form. It’s the kind of thing that isn’t being taught to new people. I’m 31 going on 32, and to not only just know what I’m doing, but to be a department head and have a projection department and to be a full-time salary guy is….it doesn’t exist.

We are very fortunate to be in Brookline and have the support of full administration and the board and to have this spotlight on us. We’re a part of a group called the Art House Convergence. It’s not an official entity yet, but it’s an assembling of all these different art houses around the country and we talk about why the Coolidge does so well. It’s because we have quality, qualified film projectionists. We maintain the equipment. For not much more of an investment in people, we prevent show failures, bad customer experiences.

How do you decide who to train as a projectionist?

There are two types of people in the world: people who do a job and people who do a job well. People who do enough and people who go above and beyond. In my booth, all those people have to go above and beyond. There is no room for people to just fill a space. We need really qualified and attentive people doing this job.

Does the multiplex need that? Obviously not. Would they benefit from it? S*** yeah.

Lazzaro said movies like "The Goonies" and "The Birds" always draw a huge crowd.
Lazzaro said movies like “The Goonies” and “The Birds” always draw a huge crowd. —Jean Nagy/Boston.com Staff

Does the loss of film projection make you sad?

It’s just the transition of the motion picture industry. In terms of exhibition, this has been something since the advent of automation that has been an issue, but it was never eradicated. It was just like, “Well, now our priorities will be to pack the house and sell the popcorn instead of have quality projection.”

There are interesting developments and you can’t slow progress, I just wish there was more room for digital and film to co-exist. I don’t think one is better than the other cause that’s the wrong way of looking at it. Certain movies look better on film but if you’re going to see The Avengers, it looks better digital.

The other thing with film is that the chemistry and quality of film stock has diminished. It’s really crappy. Not many houses are printing theatrical prints anymore because it’s a domino effect. You take away the demand for film, and the quality of film diminishes.

Nick Lazzaro didn't always know he wanted to learn how to be a film projectionist.
Nick Lazzaro prepares to splice film ahead of a showing. —Jean Nagy/Boston.com

What is the hardest part of your job right now?

It can be demanding since it’s such a specialized field. Sometimes I need to be here all the time. Balancing your personal life with your work life is hard, and certainly there is a ceiling here in terms of money so it’s a harder path to work a creative avenue like that. I’m sure other fields are more financially rewarding, but my value is in my personal happiness.

What is your favorite film to show?

I have a handful of films I love running and they’re extremely rare prints. We showed The Devils by Ken Russell. It’s an extremely hard film to find and we found a nearly fully intact mint print of it. That might have been two years ago. We ran that and it was insane. That movie is legendary and beautiful and horrifying. It’s a witch trial film. It’s really disturbing. We got honored by the Boston Society of Film Critics for that one.

I also love running Predator. I ran the only print of Predator that’s left in the world. That’s the only theatrical print there is.

The Coolidge is Boston's only nonprofit independent movie house.
The Coolidge is Boston’s only nonprofit independent movie house. —Jean Nagy/Boston.com Staff

How do you unwind?

I play music. It’s my first passion of all things I love. I love eating food and cooking food. I’ve been playing drums since I was 8 years old. Had a drum kit since I was 10 and I’ve been in a band since I was 14. In town, I mostly play heavy metal, which is a wonderful workout and a great way of relieving stress. I think it’s one of the last remaining super innovative music forms, like the modern day classical music…That would probably set some people off.

Playing music fits with my ethos. People say, “Yeah, your band is cool but there’s not a lot of money in it and the venues are drying up.” It’s the same kind of fight as film projection but it’s a good fight and I need to do it. Music puts me at ease; otherwise I get really stressed out. I also love watching movies and consume a lot of television and play video games, normal people stuff.

In 10 years, Lazzaro said he doesn't know where he will end up, but he wouldn't be bummed if he's still at the Coolidge.
In 10 years, Lazzaro said he doesn’t know where he will end up, but he wouldn’t be bummed if he’s still at the Coolidge. —Jean Nagy/Boston.com Staff

What makes your job meaningful?

I’m proud of the work I do. I feel the reward of what I do. I’m interested. It’s so many different things.

It’s the hands-on tactile things, it’s the troubleshooting of the day, and learning about new and old, old technology. I’m learning stuff all the time. You never stop learning. I like the accountability the job has because you’re either doing it absolutely right or absolutely wrong. In this world, where do we have something so black and white like that?

I also think this place is beautiful. I feel my place standing on the shoulders of a 130-year-old history of motion picture. That’s a cool feeling. But yeah, I do the job because this place doesn’t make me feel like I’m in some kind of grinder. I feel valued and appreciated and like I’m learning every day. I get respect that’s reciprocated, whether it’s from my boss or the underlings. Yeah, I don’t make a lot of money but I make enough to live in Boston so I’m not making pennies. It’s a labor of love. That’s why I do this. It goes back to the artist guy in me.

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