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Alameda Labor Dispute Hinges on Skills of Projectionists

As projectionists try to get a contract at the Alameda Theatre, some patrons lose faith.

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On the biggest box-office weekend in history, Diana and Steve Wedgwood decided not to see a movie. Not at the Alameda Theatre and Cineplex, anyway. After heading over from Oakland for a Saturday matinee, the couple caught sight of International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees projectionists picketing beneath the marquee and opted — as a "union family" — to go elsewhere.

It's a scene the city of Alameda doesn't want to see repeated. Facing a projected $5 million budget shortfall for the 2008-2009 fiscal year, Alameda has been forced to cut back services and put a property-transfer-tax increase on the November ballot. And with $30.5 million in public funds invested in the new movie complex, the city is hoping that the facility will draw repeat business to the Park Street district and help increase revenues.

The July 18-19 picket by IATSE Local 169, which alleges that owner Kyle Conner is scratching prints and stalling negotiations, is the latest in a handful of potential image problems the theater has encountered since opening in May with a black-tie-and-slight-projection-glitches gala. And though the Art Deco picture palace, adjacent seven-screen cineplex, and municipal parking garage have netted attention and visitors from within the city and beyond, not everyone who's come to marvel at the natty new Alameda is planning on a return trip.

"This was all sold as this grand theater for Alamedans that we'd pay for to be the shining jewel of downtown," said resident Adam Gillitt. "And now I have no interest in having anything to do with it." Gillitt said he soured on the cineplex due in large part to technical problems after experiencing poor sound and attending a WALL-E showing that was "out of focus for pretty much the entire film." The picture eventually ground to a stop, he added, yet "no one acknowledged it. No staff said anything to the patrons. And then after twenty minutes it just started again. I can't remember the last time I went to a movie where the movie stopped. I mean, it might have been in the '70s. ... From what I understand, union projectionists would actually prevent things like that from happening, so I'm all for it."

Will Viharo, programmer and publicity director at Speakeasy Theaters, said the Alameda has been gaining a reputation for "butchering" first-run prints and turning off some filmgoers. "As an Alamedan, I love the new theater, but as someone who is also in the business, I can both sympathize with their problems and also recognize that they are unnecessary and easily solved," he said. Viharo believes that they "need some professionalism in their projection" or will run the risk of sacrificing "a lot of goodwill with customers. And also, I don't think the studios will put up with getting their prints returned like that." The competitor said he takes no side in the union dispute, but added that his theaters employ union projectionists because "if you want a job done well you hire people who know how to do it."

Conner, who partnered with the city to refurbish the landmark theater and build the cineplex, conceded that his operation experienced a handful of "opening issues" inevitable with such a giant undertaking. "Considering what we've accomplished and what we've delivered to the public, there's going to be a period of time in any opening of a business like this that there will be some bugs to work out," he said. "We're constantly striving to perfect, and the people are getting better and better every day."

There is indeed evidence that standards are improving at the Alameda. Viharo caught The Dark Knight twice on opening weekend. Projection was "stellar," he said, except for a serious DVD glitch before the credits rolled. Likewise, patrons leaving the 12:30 matinee on July 19 were wildly enthusiastic about the movie and the service. "Everything was fine," said Ruth Brown of Oakland, though she reported that the previous week she did wait 45 minutes when Hancock was delayed by "projection problems." Patron John Fagan, on the other hand, hasn't had any problems. Picking up his ticket on Saturday, he said that no amount of picketing would discourage him. "The historic theater looks awesome. And it's so convenient. I can walk here."

Still, Conner noted that 35-millimeter film is bound to get scratched on occasion. But his antagonists on the picket line dispute this claim. "We had No Country for Old Men for three months, and it still looked good the day it shipped out — no scratches, just a little wear," said projectionist Charles Rosenthal of the Cerrito Speakeasy Theater. And the Cerrito is a second-run house — meaning that it receives prints already shown at other theaters. Part of Rosenthal's work is inspecting and repairing the used prints he receives. He believes that a first-run house like the Alameda should have no damage at all. "See a movie at the Alameda and then go to the Grand Lake," he added. "There's a difference."

The difference between Allen Michaan's first-run Grand Lake and Kyle Conner's first-run Alameda, according to IATSE, is the skill disparity between expert projectionists in the booth versus regular employees running the machines. Local 169 business agent Jason Mottley believes a theater like the Alameda should employ "top-quality professional projectionists and technicians." He added: "This is the Alameda Theatre; this is supposed to be the jewel of the bay, the best theater there is."

Conner points to his sixteen-year history as owner of CinemaTECS for anyone who wants evidence of his own expertise with projection equipment. Conner knows his way around a projector; his company services such machinery across the state. "And I have a very capable projectionist crew in place already," he adds. "If I have one complaint, I have five hundred compliments. And that's no exaggeration."

Yet Conner himself pines for the day when projection problems and scratched celluloid are a thing of the past. He currently has one digital projector in the cineplex and said he expects to go completely digital soon. "The reality of it is that when I convert to digital, there is no projectionist," he said. "There's no projectionist anymore. I'm trying to make them [the union] understand that." The barriers to going digital involve conversion costs and fee arrangements. "It's an eight-hundred-thousand to million-dollar investment to go digital," Conner explained, and independent operators like himself face a distribution system controlled by conglomerates. Speakeasy's Viharo said he thinks going all-digital anytime soon is a "pipe dream," and that the new machines are "extremely complicated" to run.

Mottley doesn't believe that the Alameda will go digital in six months or a year, and opined that if Conner were able to go digital in that time he wouldn't have invested in different equipment for just the first six months. He said that after nearly two months of attempted contact with Conner proved largely fruitless, he and Conner sat down on July 5 and discussed terms and digital projection. "I said if you really think you're gonna go digital and you won't need us anymore, let's put a clause in the contract that says as soon as you go, let's say, 50 percent digital, we'll either reopen the contract or renegotiate it or even end the contract. And he said no."

The July 5 meeting came about, Mottley claims, when the union finally took up picket signs after receiving no responses from Conner or Alameda Mayor Beverly Johnson regarding calls, fliers, and letters about starting negotiations. "It was July 4th weekend, and I think he would have said or done anything to get us to leave," said Mottley. The impromptu negotiations lasted twenty minutes, with Mottley proposing "something that was partial union, partial nonunion," including basic terms and transitions to digital technologies.

Alameda's mayor was involved in facilitating the 2006 negotiations between the United Food and Commercial Workers union and the owners of the new Nob Hill grocery store, which was a city redevelopment project. At the time, she told the Oakland Tribune that she had personally spoken to officials at the new development and said "It's not acceptable that Nob Hill is considering opening nonunion."

Conner said he and the mayor have discussed the union issue. "I think what city officials are urging is that I make a prudent decision about what's best for the theater," he said. "It may or may not be with the union is what I understand."

But at least for now, understanding is in short supply between all parties. What Conner understands as negotiation, IATSE calls stalling; what IATSE understands as excuses, Conner calls diligence. While city redevelopment officials say they see two parties working it out between themselves, IATSE said Conner is not actually engaging in talks.

Mottley claims that Conner promised him a substantive proposal by July 7; Conner said he wanted to see copies of IATSE's contracts with other area theaters. "It's not an unreasonable request to look at some contracts before I have discussions with them further. They're not entitled to what they're asking for. I don't know for sure what they're asking for until I see these contracts."

IATSE has contracts with theaters throughout the East Bay, including AMC Bay Street 16 in Emeryville, the Oaks and Elmwood in Berkeley, and the four area Landmark theaters, among others. They are currently in negotiations with United Artists/Regal, the largest chain in the country, but do not have a contract with the Century chain.

Conner said he is waiting on receiving contracts from Landmark and North American Cinemas, for whom he once worked as a general manager when they owned the Elmwood Theatre in Berkeley and the South Shore in Alameda. "I had hoped to further the discussions this week, but I'm still waiting to get the information," he said. "I'm still waiting to get them. I don't care, send me a blank contract. Send me anything so that I can review what they're asking for."

Mottley said Conner has not made good-faith contact regarding the status of those contracts. He says Conner is welcome to locate them, but claims they are irrelevant to any future negotiations, both because one of the contracts is for jobs unlike those at the Alameda and because "even if nobody else had union contractors, this is about the jewel of the bay. They should be setting the standard."

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