Even Stanley Kubrick Had a Problem With Projection Quality
by Alex Billington
December 14, 2007
Last week I addressed the ongoing issue of poor projection quality in movie theaters, pointing out that the biggest problem is that people just don't care enough to complain. It's only with everyone's involvement and help will movie theaters begin to improve over time. The response to the article was tremendous and for the sake of building even more awareness, I thought it would be important to continue to mention that the issue is still prevalent. My encouragement to discuss the problem at hand came from originally a blog post by Jeffrey Wells on Hollywood Elsewhere. Wells posted another update on projection quality this week, and this time he pulled in the legendary Stanley Kubrick, who even 20 years ago was complaining about poor theater standards.
Back in 1987, Kubrick was interviewed by Tim Cahill of Rolling Stone while promoting Full Metal Jacket. The two got into discussing movie theaters because Cahill had heard a rumor that Kubrick wanted to personally approve all of the theaters that were showing the movie and Cahill called it "mindless anxiety." Kubrick went on to clarify that it isn't anxiety at all, but rather complete sanity - which I certainly agree with when you hear all that Kubrick has to say.
Kubrick: "Some people are amazed that I worry about the theaters where the picture is being shown. They think that's some form of demented anxiety. But Lucasfilms has a Theater Alignment Program. They went around and checked a lot of theaters and published the results in a  report that virtually confirms all your worst suspicions. For instance, within one day, fifty percent of the prints are scratched. Something is usually broken. The amplifiers are no good, the sound is bad, the lights are uneven."
If in 1985, the official report from LucasFilm (that I would trust a lot more than a company that is paid by the theaters like today) said that more than 50% of all theaters had some issue with the reel or projection, then imagine how much that has increased in 20 years, especially with the changing cinematic climate and economic conditions. My first question from Kubrick's discussion is: where the heck is the LucasFilm Theater Alignment Program nowadays?! Why aren't there some heavily reinforced industry standards and/or an analytical company that focuses specifically on the end result and projection quality rather than how much candy and popcorn is sold?
Kubrick: "Many exhibitors are terribly guilty of ignoring minimum standards of picture quality. For instance, you now have theaters where all the reels are run [with a horizontal platter system]. And they never clean the aperture gate. You get one little piece of gritty dust in there, and every time the film runs, it gets bigger. After a couple of days, it starts to put a scratch on the film. The scratch goes from one end of the film to the other. You've seen it, I'm sure."
Kubrick continues on with his final claim which solidifies the fact that as a filmmaker, he is perfectly sane in wanting to go around and make sure the theaters know how to handle his movie and know how to project it right.
Kubrick: "The Lucas report found that after fifteen days, most films should be junked. [The report says that after seventeen days, most films are damaged.] Now, is it an unreal concern if I want to make sure that on the press shows or on key city openings, everything in the theater is going to run smoothly? You just send someone to check the place out three or four days ahead of time. Make sure nothing's broken. It's really only a phone call or two, pressuring some people to fix things. I mean, is this a legitimate concern, or is this mindless anxiety?"
Although the times have changed quite a bit since 1987, including that all theaters now use horizontal platter systems and employ minimum wage employees in mass quantities as projectionists, it doesn't mean that what Kubrick is saying isn't still incredibly relevant. It's quite eye-opening to see that even back in the 80's, Kubrick noticed that there was a problem. And at least back then they had a system that attempted to improve the quality, but my guess is that the LucasFilm Theater Alignment Program no longer exists. I'm sure it has to do with the corporate nature of the current theater system.
I'm inspired by this interview to take even more action and to build even more awareness of poor projection quality and overall movie theater performance. In the next few days I'll have a follow up piece ("part two") to this article that will look at the idea of the Theater Alignment Program. However, I can't stray far from the fact that projection quality is still something that won't go away without your help and without actual interaction from the customer.
Addressing some of the issues brought up in the comments of the last post, it seems a lot of the complaints coming from actual projectionists are that a lot of things are out of their control. However, it's the same thing with them - they've got to be active in urging better projection, too. If as a projectionist, you really care about the performance, you should be doing everything to make sure it's top notch. You should be going to your boss or your boss's boss to make sure things are right. Would you want Stanley Kubrick to show up at your theater and blame you for the problems?