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Behind the Screens: Cineplex Odeon's Clash With Projectionists

Reely mad: Al Benkus, secretary-treasurer of projectionists' Local 110, thinks Cineplex Odeon is trying to bust his entrenched and well-paid union.

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The Cineplex Odeon Corporation and Local 110 of the Motion Picture Projectionists and Video Technicians Union have faced off in a battle that could radically change the way Chicago movie theaters operate while testing the resolve of one of the city's most entrenched and best-paid unions.

Last week Toronto-based Cineplex Odeon, which operates 49 movie theaters with 200 screens in the metropolitan Chicago area, initiated a surprise lockout of Local 110 members who run the chain's projection booths. Cineplex Odeon theater managers, who had quietly been in training for two months to learn how to operate the projectors, quickly moved in to man the booths. The company's executive vice president Howard Lichtman maintains the training was part of the chain's nationwide push to prepare managers to handle any emergencies.

The lockout came as Cineplex Odeon and union executives were discussing a new three-year contract meant to replace a five-year contract that expired on September 1. "We were trying to negotiate with them and out of the blue they locked us out," says an angry Al Brenkus, secretary-treasurer of Local 110. He believes the company is out to bust the union; Lichtman denies any such motive.

Brenkus says approximately 165 projectionists (out of a total 400 Local 110 members) currently work in Cineplex Odeon theaters, and he maintains the company would like to lay off more than 100 of them. Lichtman would not provide any specific figures on the staff reductions Cineplex Odeon seeks, but one of its contract demands is that the company determine projection-booth personnel requirements instead of the union, which had that power under previous contracts.

Another key matter in the dispute is money. Local 110 members are perhaps the best-paid projectionists in the country, the result of highly complex contracts ranging back over the union's 46-year history. Brenkus says, "It's taken us a long time to get where we are now." Sources close to the local movie-exhibition business indicate that the union received favorable contracts in the past because the former Plitt Theatres chain hoped to limit competition in Chicago by making it an expensive area in which to do business.

The ploy appears to have worked for both Plitt and Cineplex Odeon, which acquired the Plitt chain in late 1985. As Plitt had done, Cineplex Odeon continues to spearhead negotiations with the projectionists' union for the relatively small number of area movie-theater chains. While numerous chains vie for audiences in Los Angeles and New York, only Loews (formerly M & R) and General Cinema also operate substantial numbers of first-run screens in Chicago.

The hourly "booth rate" for projectionists at Cineplex Odeon theaters currently ranges between $16.37 and a whopping $112, depending on the particular theater and union contract. The wide range in hourly rates reflects the size range of theaters and the number of screens controlled from each booth. The booths in larger complexes are currently staffed by more than one projectionist, and the higher hourly rates are divided among them.

At the three-screen Biograph Theatre, for instance, three union projectionists divided a $44.33 hourly booth rate under the old contract. Under the terms of the new contract Cineplex Odeon has offered to the union, the Biograph hourly booth rate would drop to $18.01, presumably to be paid to only one projectionist. Cineplex Odeon's Lichtman explains, "We want to pay a certain amount of money per theater with one man per theater like we do in the rest of the country."

Brenkus says the typical projectionist now earns between $38,000 and $40,000 a year for between 30 and 40 hours of work a week. Lichtman says the company's payroll records indicate that 39 Local 110 members earn more than $49,000 annually.

Cineplex Odeon says its attempts to lower local projection-booth costs are merely a long overdue move to bring them in line with other theaters around the country. But some local movie-exhibition sources believe the battle with the union was precipitated in part by lackluster box-office grosses at many of the chain's Chicago-area theaters, combined with the company's overall financial problems of recent years.

Before he was forced out in 1989, Cineplex Odeon's former president, Garth Drabinsky, embarked on a rapid and costly expansion that ran up a burdensome debt for the company as moviegoing began to decline. According to projectionists' union figures, many of the showy theaters Drabinsky built in Chicago, including the one at 900 N. Michigan, cost about $120 per square foot to construct, compared with an average of $75 per square foot for a typical new movie theater. Furthermore, local theater owners who track weekly box-office figures say a number of Cineplex Odeon venues, such as McClurg Court, Broadway Cinema, and Burnham Plaza among others, often fail to generate enough profit to provide the chain with a substantial return on its investment.

Earlier this week there seemed to be no end to the impasse between Cineplex Odeon and Local 110. Union pickets are up in front of most theaters, and picketers last weekend asked moviegoers not to buy high-profit concessions. The union has called in a federal mediator, but the two sides will not meet again until next Tuesday. Meanwhile, some observers worry about the potential for violence if the lockout continues. "If this goes on too long," says one exhibitor, "something is going to happen."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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