Film Projection Quality Control, How Bad Can it Be?
by Alex Billington
April 11, 2007
Last night I went to catch a screening of Disturbia at the local Landmark Mayan art house theater, one of my favorite theaters in all of Colorado. I love the place because of the decor, the atmosphere, and importantly that every time I go to screenings (usually morning press-only screenings of such indie greats as Babel, Little Children, or Perfume) the picture is always perfectly in focus, looks beautiful, and the sound is spot on. Most of that is because the manager of all of the Landmark's in Denver takes a lot of care and concern in the films he displays, and makes sure they live up to the quality of his theaters. However at this screening, that wasn't the case.
This time around it was a disaster. When it started out the framing was off and about 10 minutes it disaster struck - the boom mic made its first of many appearances up at the top of the screen.
As time went on it continued to get worse, with the mic (or multiple mics) showing up more often and with much more visibility. Then the frame started to go between filling to the top of the screen and a black bar cutting off the top half. There was even a scene I remember watching where you could see the entire black rigging on the ceiling on the house set along with the boom mic. It was terrible and I began to get a bit more annoyed every minute that passed.
As I watched the audience around me laugh and gasp every time they saw the mic, I realized that this film had just gone down the drain. When they go to high school the next day (the audience was full of this crowd - exactly what Disturbia is playing for) and tell their friends all about the screening, what is the first thing they're going to mention? The boom mics! And who are they going to blame? The filmmakers!
It's Not Hollywood's Fault, It's The Theater's
The first inclination of any and every person who is just there to see a good movie is blame Hollywood and the filmmakers. Oh the guy holding the boom mic was terrible and it kept showing up in frame. Or they forgot to edit it out, or the camera work was so bad it showed up. The truth is, that's not the case. The blame isn't on them. It was a decision director D.J. Caruso made to film it with a certain aspect ratio that included all of those elements in the actual frame of the film. What would happen afterwards is the quality control that projectionists at theaters around the world would need to make sure it's framed and formatted exactly as they specified and all would be well.
It was the distributor's decision, for whatever reasons (cost, timing) to simply send this print out, whether an early cut for screening purposes or not, without cropping and with those still in the frame, with a note that says how to set it up correctly and there would be no problem. So it should've been easy for them to simply make sure it was setup correctly and this would have never occurred, right?
Where Is The Quality Control
The excuse the theater gave us when we yelled at them multiple times was that they "didn't tell us" that it needed to be framed a certain way until the movie had already started, and it wouldn't be possible to fix now that it's running. Now think about this multiplied on the scale of 2000+ screens that the film is going to open up in this Friday. What is the quality control on this, how wide scale will it be? What if two or three out of every ten lazy projectionists skip the note and before you know it Paramount's great film is ruined on 600 screens.
I've ranted since we've started FS.net about the troubles that theaters have and how ridiculous the movie theaters can be when it comes to such simple things as this. Is there not a quality control somewhere that can just make sure every movie looks great? I guess they've got their minimum wage projectionists starting each movie, but someone working at the theater has to care, right?
The End Of It All
Fortunately they got a projectionist down who fixed it part way through the movie. And for all I know this could've been just an early print of the film and the final ones going out on Friday will all be fixed. However this should never happen, to anyone, anywhere. Who's out there making sure this doesn't happen? Nobody. Paramount can't go yelling at the theaters, that's too widespread for them to worry about, but it's their movie that gets the negative buzz in the end. Hopefully in time we'll see the theaters improve, but it's going to take a lot of work for them to get there.