Thursday, February 3, 2011

Conflicting Views On Digital Projection

I noticed it this past fall. The movies I was attending were suddenly brighter and clearer than what I was used to. They were in sharp focus. There were no scratches, no dirt specks, no hairs caught in the gate. There were no cigarette burns in the top right corner. There was no wavering as tape splices passed through the sprockets. It was jaw-dropping; the most perfect movie presentation I'd seen outside of a studio lot.

The tape splices were seamless because there were no tape splices. The film didn't jitter through the sprocket holes because there were no sprocket holes. In fact, there was no film at all. I was watching digital projection.

Among the many expectations I had when I moved to Los Angeles back in 2002 was that the movie theaters here would be the best in the world. I thought I'd be seeing the most perfectly calibrated picture and sound, the cleanest auditoriums, the best trained staffs. This is a company town, after all, and these movie theaters are attended by the very people who made the films that are being shown. In L.A. more than anywhere else, wouldn't theater chains put their best foot forward?

As it turns out, no. Unless you're going to a premium or arthouse theater -- Grauman's Chinese, the NuArt, the ArcLight, etc. -- you're getting the same generic, corporatized multiplex experience as everyone else in North America: assembly line snack foods, a demoralized grunt staff, and shoddy projection. No pride, no sense of presentation.

Look, I'm a realist. If movie theaters can't make economic sense of providing better snack food than popcorn and a bag of M&M's, then it's not really fair for me to expect it of them. Likewise, it's just a simple fact of capitalism that theaters would price themselves out of business if they paid to hire a premium staff. These things I can accept. But why is film projection -- the centerpiece attraction of the picturehouse -- so consistently bad on every single multiplex screen you've ever been to in the last 30 years?

It's mostly due to cutting corners, with a little bit of ignorance and laziness thrown in.

For some 20 years, film critic Roger Ebert has been trying to raise public awareness about a cost-cutting measure employed by most theater chains. In an effort to reduce electric bills and prolong the life of the (very expensive) film projector lamps, theaters will reduce the light output on their projectors. They assume that almost no one will notice, and they're basically right about that; few people ever feel as ripped off as they should. To the theater operators, the money saved more than makes up for the rare customer complaint.

But reducing the light intensity is misguided. "I've quoted Eastman Kodak experts who say the light level has no effect on bulb life," says Ebert.

So audiences are being deprived of the full experience they paid for, and the theaters get a marginal-at-best benefit from it.

While the quality of projection has been intentionally reduced, projectionists themselves have been systematically removed from the equation. Instead of one projectionist running one movie from start to finish for every showing, the process has been automated. Multiplexes put one or two people in charge of running 20 screens, usually a manager instead of a trained projectionist. This person flips a switch, and the system takes care of itself. Of course, a number of things can go wrong that require human attention -- the focus can slip, the bulb can start to fade, the sound can get bumped higher or lower -- and no one working for the theater notices or cares enough to fix them.

Theater operators are aware of the fact that, since no one is monitoring the projector during a typical screening, there's a great risk of the film getting stuck in the gate and becoming damaged or completely broken. To help ensure that this won't happen, chain theaters loosen the pressure plate on the projector - the component that holds the film at the proper distance between the light and the lens. If the film is not held in the right place, the focus is going to be off. This happens all the time.

All of these problems go away with digital projection. There's no physical film, so there's no wear and tear -- no scratches, no dirt specks, no snapping, no fading colors. There's no bulb that will dim over time. Plus, it's a lot cheaper for the studios. They don't have to spend tens of thousands of dollars striking film prints and then shipping them out all over the world; they simply beam a digital file around via satellite link. If you're conservation-minded, you can rest assured it's a lesser toll on the environment: less film is being manufactured, less dangerous chemicals are being used to process said film, and no planes or trucks are being used to ship physical prints to and from their destination theaters.

Sounds like digital projection is nothing but great, right? Unfortunately, I think it's exactly the wrong way to go.

Let's set aside my nostalgic notions of why film "feels" different than digital video, and focus on the practical.

For the past decade or so, movie theater attendance has been on the decline. There are too many competing distractions. The internet alone is enough to keep most people busy. Then there's the fact that TV has gone high def and added the convenience of DVRs. On top of that, you've got a dozen ways to rent or buy movies and have them delivered instantly to your home. Not to mention the fact that younger generations would rather play video games than watch movies anyway.

To keep up with competitors, movie studios continue to close the gap between the theatrical release and the home video release of their films. Some distributors are even experimenting with releasing movies to home video the same day as the theatrical opening, so theaters don't even have much claim on exclusivity anymore. The real question is, why hasn't movie theater attendance fallen off completely?

This past December, Helby and I went out and got ourselves a new TV. We'd already had an HDTV, but this one is four years newer, four years more advanced. It has a bigger screen and a far superior picture, and it cost less than our previous HDTV. Plus it's more energy efficient. We've also got a 5.1 surround sound system hooked up to our home theater. And of course, we have blu ray.

With brilliant HD video and optical surround sound, watching a movie at home rivals the theater going experience. Plus, my couch is there. If I have to wait a couple months to see the latest movie, it's usually worth it.

This is what the movie theaters are competing with these days. As the audience dwindles, digital projection is an appealing patch job that will slow their profit loss, but will end up biting them in the ass. As an audience member, if I'm looking for high definition digital video, I don't have to go all the way to a movie theater to find it - it's right there at home. It seems to me that, in order to stay competitive, theaters should be offering audiences something unique instead of giving them the exact same thing they already have in their living rooms.


  1. like this article a lot. I agree with you... The theater experience needs to out do the home experience. The problem is, most people, my parents included, can't see the difference between standard definition and HD. They just think HD is bigger and widescreen... Well, it is, but they're missing the bigger picture, so to speak.

    I personally think theaters need to stick to film, project it correctly, and offer better amenities. We are lucky in LA to have art house theaters and really all different scale of theater. But they should really consider upping the quality of concession stand items and offer drink service, etc. I think The Bridge is my favorite movie theater in LA so far. It has everything. I don't mind paying $15 to see a movie there. The Arclight is nice too, but I still prefer The Bridge...probably because it's closer. They are very similar.

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