One of my favorite things about the Manhattan screening rooms where press screenings typically take place is the pitch darkness you fall into before every show. The room dips to an even black — and the best ones are designed thoughtfully enough that you won’t even be distracted by a red “Exit” sign during the show. Also the sound is excellent. Reference-level dynamics might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but there’s a tightness and immediacy to the mix that you just don’t get in a larger room, even when that room is properly tuned up for audio.
Sadly, your average multiplex does not boast particularly good sound — nor even a particularly dark room. I grew up in Colorado, and when I moved to New York in 1994 I noticed a definite uptick in presentation quality in Manhattan theaters, where theater management is likely to be hassled by filmmakers themselves if the specs are out of whack. Of course, New York theaters have their peculiarities, too — unidentifiable odors, radically uncomfortable seats and/or angles of sight, sudden explosions of indecipherable verbalese from the octogenarian gentleman in the back row, and the intermittent but unmistakable rumble of subway cars running underneath the floor.
The very best venues in Manhattan tend to get everything right most of the time, and it’s a pleasure to see movies in those theaters. In the suburbs where I actually live, that’s not the case. The dominant chains (National Amusements and AMC/Loews) have built impressive theaters and come frustratingly close to maintaining standards of exhibition. But almost invariably there’s something wrong at every suburban screening, be it soft focus, poor sound, a dirty projector gate, or bad framing. It all gets me thinking about how great it would be if movie-theater patrons actually demanded some level of respect from their multiplex tyrants — but as a practical matter it seems the queen simply expects us to eat cake. I saw Lars and the Real Girl in White Plains, NY, with the picture framed very poorly — the bottom of the image was cut off, and there was too much headroom at the top of the frame, which allowed the regular intrusion of boom mics onto the screen. (This is actually an indicator of Bad Projectionist Syndrome. Read on.) My complaints during the screening and afterward were both ignored.
On the other hand, I did successfully badger the manager on duty in Greenburgh, NY, to get a screening of Casino Royale precisely into frame after some of the opening credits were projected on the black masking below the screen, instead of the screen itself.
Here’s my list of things that paying theatergoers deserve — and that careless theater management routinely screws up. If you suspect your local theater is guilty on one or more counts, you can take it up with the theater manager. If you don’t like confrontation, or if you just don’t get satisfaction, a letter to corporate headquarters may be in order. Often, you’ll get an offer of free passes to a future screening in return. It’s a nice gesture, but I’d rather pay for the screenings at a theater that gets it right. (It’s not impossible — the worst transgression I’ve ever seen committed at my local arthouse, the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY, was a screening of Rififi that was projected at 1.66:1 instead of the intended 1.37:1, which resulted in the slicing off of eyeballs in the film’s centerpiece musical number. I complained afterward by mail and received a quick and apologetic response from management.)
Anyway, be patient with me. This might turn into a little bit of a rant.
The picture needs to be in focus. I’ve italicized this because it’s job one. When I saw Hostel Part 2 at the National Amusements multiplex in Greenburgh, NY, I complained three times about the badly out-of-focus picture. Each time the projectionist adjusted the image so that it was a little better, but not actually in focus. (Maybe the projectionist was a conscientious objector to the idea of projecting Hostel Part 2 in focus.)
The picture needs to be in focus. This is base-level stuff, and it always amazes me when I’m the only one in a sold-out theater who seems willing to get up to complain about it. (I’m not counting the surprisingly prevalent practice of yelling “focus!” from the middle of the theater, as if there’s anyone still up there by the time the commercials and previews have all rolled through.) I don’t know if people just don’t notice it, or if they figure it’s too much trouble to leave the movie long enough to alert one of the shiftless teenagers taking tickets outside the auditorium.
The picture needs to be in focus. If it isn’t, complain. If it’s possible, take your ticket money to another exhibitor . They need to be able to do at least this much in exchange for your 10 bucks.
To save pennies, some theaters like to reduce the brightness of their projection lamps, which in turn reduces the contrast and clarity of the image you, dear viewer, see projected. Roger Ebert has reported that Martin Scorsese used to go to movie theaters where Raging Bull was playing, run up to the screen with a light meter to take a measurement, and then raise holy hell with whoever was in charge if there weren’t enough foot-lamberts (the standardized measure of movie brightness) being reflected off the screen. (The spec for this type of thing is generally determined by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, known as SMPTE for short.) Maybe that’s why New York theaters have uniformly decent projection. If you don’t live in New York — or you don’t carry a light meter — you may not have a reference standard for brightness, but images should not look murky, and they should be bright all the way across the screen, not dimming noticeably in the corners (20 percent or so is OK). If you have a choice of theaters to patronize, you can often see a clear difference, so figure out which one has the brightest, clearest image. Kodak has some suggested questions to ask if you want to keep the theater manager on his toes.
Kodak also warns that, as screen sizes get larger, it’s harder to reach the SMPTE spec of 16 foot-lamberts of light on the screen, given the physical limitations of 35mm film: “It is impossible to do it on a 35-foot high screen, short of burning the film to a crisp,” wrote John Pytlak* in the document linked above, explaining that only 70mm film can allow optimal image quality to be achieved on large screens. I’ve seen this phenomenon in action in New York — the large Loews auditorium at the AMC Lincoln Square is a great place to see a movie, but if you watch the same film on that huge screen and then again, later in its run, in one of the smaller rooms, you’ll notice that the picture on the smaller screens is much better-looking.
The dim-projection problem is so prevalent that some films have apparently been processed at the lab to look correct at lower light levels (scroll down to Item 6.3: Light on Screen). That means, of course, that if you see one of those films projected in a theater that pays attention to its specs, the image is likely to appear overly bright and washed out. Not an attractive solution to the problem.
* Sadly, Pytlak — a much-needed crusader on behalf of high-quality 35mm exhibition, and thus the last of a dying breed — died on August 17 of this year.
One of my favorite bad-movie-theater anecdotes has to do with a fairly new multiplex built by UA in Mohegan Lake, NY. My wife and I went to see Analyze This, and the overhead lights remained lit not only during the trailers, but also as the feature began. (Not only does this impact the quality of the projected image, but it also makes it harder for me to concentrate on the screen when I can clearly see every haircut, every ear-scratch, and every nervous tic on the part of every patron between me and the bottom of the screen — it’s only in a too-bright theater that you start to recognize certain advantages of darkness.) I hopped out of my seat and out into the hallway to find a staffer.
“Excuse me,” I said. “The movie has started in theater seven, and the lights haven’t gone down.” The guy followed me back to the door of the theater, opened it and had a look into the room. “Yeah,” he said. “They don’t go down.” “OK,” I said. “I need to speak with your manager, please.” A few minutes went by as the usher fetched the manager. “Hi,” I said. “I came out of the screening in theater seven to let someone know that the lights hadn’t gone down when the movie started. And this fellow tells me that the lights ‘don’t go down.'”
The response came quickly. “Uh, yeah. Our elderly patrons were complaining that they couldn’t see if the lights were turned down.” I blinked twice, silently. And then I spoke, as politely as possible: “OK. You’re going to need to give us our money back.” Which he did, to his credit, with a minimum of fuss. I don’t know if the theater still leaves the lights on during screenings in consideration of its elderly patrons, and I doubt that I will ever find out.
If you’re paying 10 bucks to see a movie, you deserve a dark room. Ideally there will be no exit signs near the screen — or at least they’ll be positioned or shielded so that they don’t shine red light on the screen. There should not be lights in the projection booth that shine directly on the screen. The lamp on the cheap digital projector that runs the pre-show ads should not be left on during the feature, creating its own, slightly lighter box — the opposite of a shadow — inside the boundaries of the frame. The screen should not light up every time a patron enters or exits from the lobby. I realize that there are legal and practical considerations that prevent exhibitors from plunging their theaters into the kind of post-apocalyptic blackness that I’d prefer. But there is a happy medium that can ensure patrons’ safety while also creating a comfortable movie-watching experience.
When I was a kid, a friend of mine used to joke about the “green rain” that was present in every scene of every film that played at the dollar theater within walking distance of our childhood homes. He was referring, of course, to the vertical green lines that dominate an old print that’s been badly scratched during projection. “Green rain” is an extreme circumstance, and I actually don’t see it too often in first-run theaters. But prints get beaten up quickly, and the problem is exacerbated if the projection equipment isn’t carefully and thoroughly maintained and cleaned.
At a recent preview screening of The Kingdom in White Plains, I was actually marveling at the pristine quality of the brand-new, wet-from-the-lab print, with nary a spot nor scratch to be seen. Halfway through the movie the screen went abruptly dark, and the house lights came up. “Uh-oh,” was all I said before standing up and dashing out into the hallway to flag someone down — the ticket-taker, who placed the first in a likely daisy-chain series of walkie-talkie calls aimed at locating the one person in the megaplex who could determine what went wrong. What went wrong was, in this case, something called a “brain wrap,” which is very bad. And when the film started up again, about a half-hour later, the print looked like it had been dragged behind a truck. In other words, it looked like substantially any other print playing at a suburban multiplex after four or five days’ worth of screenings.
In my experience, this problem varies from theater to theater. The best-run operations pay the most attention to cleanliness up in the projection booth and proper handling of materials; consequently and consistently, they show better-looking prints longer into a movie’s run. Patronize them if you can.
One theater near me has had a blown right surround speaker near the front of the room, where I always sit, for many years. I first noticed it during a trailer for Seven Years in Tibet all the way back in 1997, when the speaker was making a sound like firecrackers going off underwater whenever the audio of whatever was showing demanded response below 20 Hz or so. I used to complain about it but eventually gave up. At a recent screening of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I noticed that both of the front surround speakers are now blown.
People will put up with surprisingly bad sound. I remember suffering through about a minute of Event Horizon at a local multiplex. I don’t know exactly what was wrong, but it sounded a little like they were running a full-dynamic-range DTS soundtrack (it even had a DTS trailer attached) through a single, tinny TV speaker at the front of the theater. The devastating aural effect was like what you might hear if you drove underneath a huge power transformer with a distant AM radio station turned up full blast. (To my disbelief, the other four people in the theater didn’t seemed bothered.) We left immediately for the lobby, where I found the manager and told him he’d be returning our ticket money. (There was a brief but heated discussion that ended, right, with our money being returned.)
OK, I get worked up about this. But I consider heinously bad exhibition to be an insult to paying patrons. In most circumstances—unless you’re looking at a reasonably rare print or you’re in some other unusual situation—audiences deserve to hear the film’s full soundtrack. In most cases these days, that means a multichannel mix with stereo surrounds and decent bass response to replicate the sound designers’ carefully built and controlled mixology. This isn’t just important for big-budget movies. The first time I saw The Double Life of Véronique, in a tiny converted balcony at the Esquire Theater in Denver, I noted with satisfaction how the film’s sound field shifts into the side speakers as Véronique listens through headphones to the mysterious recording received in her mail — another way Kieslowski cultivates an almost physical intimacy with Irène Jacob’s character(s). Watching the film in mono, or in two-speaker stereo, I’m always jarred by the discrepancy from my vivid sense memory of those first viewings. Fortunately, Criterion’s recent DVD keeps the sound field intact — less-exacting labels don’t always do that. And neither do less-exacting movie theaters.
6) Aspect ratio
I first learned about aspect ratios back in my hometown of Pueblo, Colorado, after I saw a trailer for The Untouchables at the Cinema 1 & 2, one of the decent local theaters. Sadly, the movie actually opened across town at the wretched Southside 4 multiplex (now, apparently, the Fellowship of the Rockies church). The trailer’s visuals were so striking that several images had been tattooed on my brain in their widescreen glory. But when I saw the actual film, I was flabbergasted — it was clear that significant parts of the picture were missing on both sides of the image! What was going on? Was it possible that the screen at the Southside 4 was the wrong shape for the film that was being shown?
Well, yeah. A few years later, taking film classes at the University of Colorado, I learned all about aspect ratios. I’m guessing the screens at the Southside 4 were locked to an approximately 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which would match the majority of movies being shown there. When ‘scope movies with their wider 2.39:1 aspect ratio play, they would necessarily be cropped to the narrower 1.85:1 shape of the screen. Some theaters routinely accommodate 2.39:1 movies by bringing curtains down from the top of the screen to create a wider aspect ratio — effectively “letterboxing” them on a taller screen — but to the best of my knowledge the Southside 4 never did. It makes me ill to think of all the formative moviegoing experiences I had there — Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Poltergeist, etc etc etc.
(If you don’t know much about the idea of different aspect ratios, and how they affect the ways that movies are projected, you might want to take a look at the primer on the subject I cooked up last month.)
Theaters with fixed frames — some of them have no masking at all, and therefore adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to different screen formats — still exist, but they’re dropping like flies as stadium-seating architecture and wide, wall-to-wall screens catch the public imagination. Good riddance.
Here’s a factoid that may be a revelation: if you see boom mics on a movie theater screen, in nearly every case, the fault lies with your theater’s projectionist rather than anyone involved with the actual film production.
One local chain has recently built a couple of very nice theaters, with robust multichannel sound, big attractive wall-to-wall screens, and tony stadium seating. But they routinely — I’d say more often than not, but I’m a curmudgeon — project films slightly out of frame. Sometimes the characters in one of those moronic Movietickets.com promos will be cut off at the eyeballs, a sure sign that the image is being framed too high on the screen. Other times, you’ll see the credit lines at the bottom of the coming attractions — or, worse, the subtitles during the feature film! — projected partly or completely in the black curtains below the screen rather than on the screen itself. At a decent theater, you will sometimes see the image move a little bit higher or a little bit lower on the theater screen during the studio logo or the opening titles as the attentive projectionist strives to make sure the framing is spot-on. That never happens at my local theaters.
I’ve been keeping an eye out for a good example of the problem — most of the images noted on the Web have to do with the naughty bits of actors that are occasionally visible when a 1.85:1 is incorrectly framed to show more picture than its makers intended. (Have you ever seen a video version of A Fish Called Wanda in which a supposedly nude John Cleese is clearly wearing shorts? The technician running the film-to-tape transfer was trying to re-compose the shot more effectively for the differently shaped home-video screen but didn’t realize there was a narrative reason why Cleese needed to be seen only above the waistband.) The full-frame video version of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure has a couple of howlers that are described in my aspect-ratios post mentioned above. I did recently find a comparatively tame image purloined, presumably by a naughty projectionist, from a trailer for Atonement. This is a scan of one entire film frame from a scene showing a drenched Keira Knightley stepping out of a fountain.
If you know anything about the Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), you know that it has the power not only to apply ratings to movies, but also to approve or deny the content of trailers and other advertising materials. (Remember the kerfuffle earlier this year about the torture-porn billboard campaign for Captivity?) There’s no way in hell CARA would approve this image for release. But that’s OK, because this image, with its aspect ratio of 1.37:1, does not represent what will actually be projected at 1.85:1. The picture should actually look like this:
There is the potential, however, for an inattentive projectionist to frame the image incorrectly, so that it looks like this:
In this case Keira Knightley’s nipples have something in common with boom mics: none of them are meant to be in the frame.
At a recent screening of Lars and the Real Girl, I got to listen to the smallish, impatient crowd behind me break out first into chuckles, then into outright laughter as boom mics dipped repeatedly into the top of the picture. One wag actually complained loudly about “this cheap movie.” Again, this is a clear indicator of incompetence at the exhibitor level, not in the original filmmaking process. In most cases, theaters are not meant to project the entire image printed on a film frame. The general exception is “scope” prints where the widescreen image has been squeezed onto the film (taking up the entire space available for each frame on the print) and must be “unsqueezed” for projection at 2.39:1.
When I spoke to director James Gray about his film We Own the Night, he expressed great satisfaction at the advancements offered by new digital post-production tools, including the ability to add black bars to the release prints, permanently blocking out the parts of the screen that aren’t meant to be projected: “You put a hard matte in the DI [digital intermediate], so no idiot projectionist, no matter how bad they are, is ever going to be able to screw up your movie.” Amen, brother.
8) The end credits
Hey, theater dudes. I know that cleaning up after the spilled soda water, chocolate-smeared candy wrappers, and other detritus, emissions and micturitions that go along with large crowds is not the greatest job in the world, and, sure, you’re in a hurry to get “sweep theater 12” marked off of your to-do list. But as long as there are people in the room sitting through the end credits, please can it with the chatter, lay off banging that big dust-tray loudly against the theater seats, and don’t linger where you block my field of vision. Under no circumstances should you stand at the front of the theater (I’ve actually seen this happen) and shout, “The movie is over! You can get up and leave now!”
And, for God’s sake, don’t turn the houselights up and/or shut down the projector before the credits are done rolling.
If you’re in a theater that doesn’t run the end credits to a film in their entirety (assuming you’re interested in seeing them), find a manager and complain. It’s unacceptable, I suspect it’s prohibited by the theater’s contract with the studios, and in my experience the manager doesn’t realize it’s happening and will hand out a comp ticket with no questions asked when it becomes clear you care about such stuff. I’ve even seen movies shut down prematurely that had “easter egg” scenes tacked on after the end credits. Most of the audience members will make little “disappointment” noises but shuffle out of the theater and to their cars without complaint. Don’t be like them. If we don’t stand our ground now, pretty soon theaters will be using digital technology to squeeze the end credits into a tiny corner of the screen as obnoxious advertisements for car dealerships, gutter-cleaning services and bad diners dominate the frame.
9) Customer service
So what happens when you, the attentive viewer, having identified a correctable problem with a screening at a given theater, track down the manager to (politely) complain about it? Does the manager listen to your concerns, assure you that he’ll look into the problem, and thank you for bringing it to his attention? If so, great. But in my experience, this fella is just as likely to argue with you — insisting nothing’s wrong, or making an obviously empty promise to “get right on that” before hustling off to clear the butter-flavoring dispensers of what I’m sure are inevitable oily blockages.
Here’s another example of this.
If you’re lucky enough to patronize a theater that takes some degree of pride in the quality of its exhibition, the staff will honestly appreciate having a careful, well-informed viewer to let them know if there’s a problem with picture or sound. If you’re unlucky, the staff will resent you for interrupting them in the between-showtimes quiet periods. But if you care about quality — and I hope you do, since anyone who goes out to the movies regularly is putting up a lot of dough for tickets — it may be worth going out of your way for a better experience. (I’m looking at you, patrons of the Angelika Film Center in New York City.) At the very least, you deserve not to be treated like an asshole by assholes.
Well, I was going to write something here about digital cinema and the outmodedness of the lower-resolution first-generation digital projectors — and even the second-generation “2K” projectors, now that even-spiffier 4K models are becoming available. (The number of Ks refers to resolution — a 2K projector has a horizontal resolution of approximately 2000 pixels; a 4K projector has approximately 4000.) But I think the jury’s still out on exactly how much difference the extra resolution will make to your average viewer in your average theater, so I’ll leave that one alone.
But if you’ve enjoyed this article — and if you’ve read this far down, I suspect that maybe you have — why not extend it by leaving a comment in which you describe something your local theater gets wrong?