A federal mediator has been called in to help resolve the ongoing labor dispute between IATSE Local 33 and ArcLight Cinemas over a living wage for the theater chain’s projectionists. On Friday, the union’s chief negotiator called the company that owns the theater chain “evil.”
The dispute pits old-time unionism against a conservative, new-age, family-run business in a battle over a handful of jobs that in a few years probably won’t even exist. It may be the last dying gasp of union projectionists in an industry that no longer needs them as 87% of the nation’s theaters, and 96% of the screens, have already switched to digital projection systems that require no projectionists at all.
A spokesperson for the Decurion Corporation, which owns ArcLight Cinemas, told Deadline that “Since we are in the middle of contract renewal negotiations for our projectionists, we unfortunately cannot provide you with any details at this time. I can assure you, however, that we value all of our crew members, and ArcLight prides itself on the environment we create for our crew members and guests. We hope to reach an agreement soon on all contract terms, as we always have in the past.”
“We are nowhere near a settlement,” said Robert Cantore, the attorney representing Local 33 in the talks.
On Thursday night, some 200 union activists briefly occupied the lobby of the ArcLight Cinema in Hollywood to demand higher wages for the theater’s employees. “Poverty level wages are unacceptable at Walmart and they are unacceptable at ArcLight,” said Rusty Hicks, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. “There’s something wrong when ArcLight attaches more value to two tubs of popcorn than the wages of its own employees.” According to the union, a projectionist who’s been with the company for more than nine years is only making $12.73 an hour.
“There may come a day when film is gone entirely, but right now it’s not, and these guys have got skills that demand more than $12.73 an hour,” Cantore told Deadline. For the company, he said, “the concept of a living wage is un-American because that’s government regulation. They think their employees don’t deserve any more than they’re getting paid.”
A few other local theaters, including the Egyptian and El Capitan, are still equipped with projectors to show movies on film, although most of the movies they run are shown digitally. And some powerful directors still insist their movies be released on film, though those films usually get very limited releases before they go wide digitally. Projectionists, meanwhile, are a dying breed. In Los Angeles, they were represented by IATSE Projectionists Local 150 until a few years ago when its dwindling jurisdiction was taken over by Stagehands Local 33.
Decurion, which takes its name from an officer in command of a squadron of cavalrymen in the Roman army, doesn’t even call its workers “employees.” “Most companies operate from the assumption that they are exchanging money for time, that they are using people to get things done, and so the term ‘employee’ is appropriate,” its website says. “Our assumption is different: we view people not only as means but also as ends in themselves. And so we have introduced such terms as ‘talent’ and ‘crew.’ Finally, it occurred to us that the most apt term for ourselves is ‘members.’ We are members of the Decurion community, a community that we are continually creating and recreating together.”
Cantore called this “a good PR piece to convince the public that they are not as evil as they truly are.”
The company is owned by the Forman family, which also owns, manages and develops real estate in California and Hawaii. Its president, Chris Forman, is a trustee of the American Film Institute and co-founder of the Harvard Salient, a biweekly conservative newspaper.