Held Over by Popular Demand 

Sale of the Oaks Theater highlights cinema economics.

Richard Graves knows he is lucky to be a good human-interest story. After all, his union can't save his job on its own.

On a recent Sunday, the 64-year-old theater projectionist stood beneath the red-and-white marquee of the Oaks Theater, on the west corner of Solano Avenue at Fresno Avenue in North Berkeley. He held a large white sign with "Theater Not Union" written on it in bold red, and handed out fliers telling passersby what had happened to him at the theater. It was a quiet, almost sullen strike. The East Bay projectionists' union has dwindled from about 150 members in its heyday to just seventeen for all of Alameda and neighboring counties. The union's idea of a major picket is a dozen people holding signs. On that day, there were only three.

Yet Graves' story was nonetheless compelling. Until February 18, he had worked for 26 years at the two-screen, nine-hundred-capacity theater, making $15.50 an hour for a 35-hour work week with full benefits. He was one year away from retirement when his contract was terminated by the sale of the Oaks to Metropolitan Theaters of Los Angeles. His new bosses offered him $12.50 an hour for twenty hours per week. He could pay for most of his benefits, or he could walk. "I feel like I'm waking up in a nightmare," Graves said, adding that he planned on filing for unemployment and COBRA for the first time in his life.

This is Metropolitan Theaters owner David Corwin's first purchase in the county, and he didn't intend to get off to such a bad start with the deeply ingrained eighty-year-old neighborhood theater. He fired Graves and another projectionist as standard operating procedure. Corwin usually employs one union technician for dozens of screens. "I don't know of anywhere where two projectionists are on staff for just two screens," he said.

Safer film stock, simpler machines, and the economics of scale have downsized old-school projectionists to near-extinction. It's simply not profitable to pay union wages for work that a sixteen-year-old working part-time at minimum wage could do, Corwin said.

The Oaks' former owner, Allen Michaan, disagrees vehemently. He said he sold his second theater not because of labor costs, but brutal competition: "I'm furious. We lost a fortune there because we couldn't get any films." He said that downtown Berkeley's Landmark and Regal chains have deals that prevented him from obtaining films from Sony and 20th Century Fox. He believes the financial impact of these practices outweighed that of employing union projectionists.

"The union projectionists are really good," Michaan said. "They're more expensive than training snack-bar personnel, but what am I selling? I'm selling the customer a projected image and a soundtrack, and the customer should have best quality for what they're paying for."

But Michaan said the union's angst over the struggling Oaks is misplaced. He believes protests would make more sense downtown, in front of the chains that employ minimal union labor. And on the upside, he said, Metropolitan Theaters brings more clout and hence better movies to the Oaks.

The union's protests ran until Monday, February 21, turning away perhaps 10 to 15 percent of the weekend's business and generating local news and radio stories about Graves and another fired projectionist, Charles Rosenthal. The pickets and the bad press have persuaded Corwin to keep Graves through his planned January '06 retirement, although Rosenthal remains fired. On February 25, Corwin sent the union another contract detailing Graves' previous thirty hours a week and full benefits plus a suggested $14.40 an hour pay rate. Union business agent Jason Mottley expects members to appprove it by March 1.

Until then, the near-extinct union projectionists have pulled their pickets and come in out of the rain. Graves, in the meantime, is looking for part-time work.

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