EDITORIALS

The Weekly Moviegoer - An Appreciation for Projection Problems

by
May 11, 2009

Projection Booth

For most people, projection snafus are annoying. If the film breaks, if the sound system fails, or if the projector fails to start up at all at its scheduled time, audiences become irritated with the delay of their entertainment and, most of all, worried that the problem will not be remedied quickly, or at all. But for me, these occasional glitches and projectionist mistakes can be almost as enjoyable as the movie itself. Maybe it's just me, because I've been a projectionist, in addition to the many positions I've held at movie theaters, but I think it has more to do with my appreciation for how strangely people act in times of incongruity.

I got to observe such awkward hilarity recently, when I went to see Treeless Mountain at NYC's Film Forum. The film broke just as the movie began; in fact, it happened immediately following the Oscilloscope production logo, so when the screen went dark it took awhile for the audience to realize that we weren't simply watching an extra long inclusion of black leader. When you're at an arthouse cinema, it's easy to assume a few minutes of nothing is actually intentional.

After a while, people started fidgeting. Some started playing with their cell phone or blackberry. Others patiently resumed doing whatever they had been doing before the trailers began: reading a newspaper, for example. A few people did the obligatory turn of the head to look up and back towards the projection booth window. Finally, an old man let out an extremely loud whistle. This was the kind of noise one would make to beckon their golden retriever to return from a distant part of a field. And yet, as intense as that attempted signal was, there's little to no chance that it did any good.

See, projection booths are not places where one can hear much of what's going on inside the auditorium. In order to monitor the sound of the movie, projectionists either have to open that little window and stick their heads out, or they turn a knob on the sound system console that plays the audio on a little speaker next to the projector. I'm not saying it's impossible for the Film Forum projectionist to have heard that man's whistle, but if he did there's a good chance he thought it was just part of the movie. The same goes for other attempts to get the attention of someone in the booth. Shouting, loud coughs, etc, as funny as they are to people like me, they're wasted efforts in these situations.

So, with that part of the process over and done with, the next step is for another member of the audience to get up and walk out of the auditorium to alert an usher or other member of the theater's staff. And without fail, immediately after that first person rises from his/her seat, another person, unassociated with that first, will follow suit. Why? I always figure that the second person assumes that first is coincidentally -- or, to make the best of the situation -- exiting the auditorium for a trip to the bathroom or concession stand. You know, because even if that were part of the truth, it wouldn't make sense for that first person to also pass on word of the film stoppage along the way. Anyway, the usual chain of events has that second person leaving the auditorium, while a third (and oftentimes a fourth, too) rises from his/her seat. But before that person(s) can also try and be the audience's savior, the first and second have returned with word that they've heroically brought the problem to the attention of someone out in the lobby, and everything is going to be just fine.

Of course, a staff member will also come in later to tell us that the film broke and it will only take a few moments for the projectionist to get our movie back up and running. Usually, a manager will make his/her way in soon after with a repeat of the film's status. By then everyone is definitely calmed down, right? Not completely. In fact, an audience's patience tends to be even more disrupted once it gets the official word. More than before, people are turning back and up to look at the projection window, perhaps to make sure there's actually someone on top of it and working hard. Just so everyone knows: if you can see the projectionist in that window, he's not splicing the film back together. But you can stare and stare and wait for him to appear, which he eventually will, most likely at the point that you should be looking forward, because the film will be back onscreen. And if that's not the case, then he probably doesn't know what the actual problem was, and you're in store for a dismissal of the audience and some re-admit tickets.

The above scenario may be occurring less and less these days, both because of digital projection and, if you're at a Regal cinema, new devices that may be used to alert management from within the auditorium. And for me that's a shame, because one of my favorite things about moviegoing is observing my fellow moviegoers when things go wrong. Am I cruel and unusual, or does anyone else enjoy this sort of experience, as long as the movie does ultimately resume?

By the way, I do not mean this as a complaint about the incident mentioned above, or of Film Forum's handling of the situation, and I'd just like to applaud the people working there for doing a great job getting the film back up and running in a timely manner.

Projection booth photo courtesy of Alix King on Flickr.

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  • I love it when people freak out because their movie was delayed by a few minutes...
  • Heckle
    The only thing that bothers me when this happens is if i'm really into the movie. The interruption takes me out of the moment.
  • Paul D
    It is nice to see articles like this out there. When I worked for a movie theater, it was always chaos when a movie broke. Which was about 4 maybe 5 times in teh 6 years that I worked for movie theaters. I am a firm beleiver that the more people know the better you can control the bad situations. Thanks for the info.
  • Chris H
    I find a lot of moviegoers to be very passive when problems arise. If the film breaks thats one thing, but if the movie is running and there's something not right about it, nobody will get off their ass to do anything. I went to see Batman Dark Knight at a local theater and the picture looked very stretched. Everyone in the movie looked cartoonishly wide yet short. Nobody got up to do anything. We had at least half the theater filled and not one so much as even whispered about the problem. I got up and said something (politely of course) and it got fixed. The same happened when a movie had very low audio volume. As characters were discussing something on-screen, it sounded like a whisper. Again there was a half-filled theater and nobody thought to correct the problem. I don't recall a movie that had a minor problem where I wasn't the guy who got up to say something. For you projectionists, you should try experimenting if you get the chance. Try screwing with the projection lens, the volume, keep the theater lights on at a low level, etc. to see how audiences react, or if they react at all. Just not in my movies.
  • Rob
    I am a projectionist and what #4 said is completely true. Just last Thursday (the most hectic day for me with prints coming in and going out) I did not double check 17 Again when it started which is presented in scope format was accidentally being shown in the Flat format (Fighting was in that theater previously). Scope is more of a widescreen view and flat is more of a square full screen, usually. The audience of about 10 people sat there until about 20 minutes left in the movie until some man had to go to the bathroom and on his way back to the theater just mentioned that the screen doesn't look right. It is a little aggravating because as a very frequent movie goer and projectionist I want the customers to enjoy the presentation even if the movie itself isn't so good. To all you movie goers, if once the trailers end (they are sometimes in different sizes and formats) there is something that doesn't look just right, say something so it can be fixed sooner rather than later.
  • Mark
    If a problem with the film only happened once in a blue moon, I wouldn't get to angry about it. But when the last three of the four movies I have seen at my local theatre all have problems and I end up getting a free pass for next time. I call it sloppy. When we sat down for the second last time, to see Wolverine. The LCD projector that does the pre-show was half pointed into the wall and extremely out of focus. You could only see half the image on the screen. I went to the usher and told them there was a problem and they said they would get it fixed. Twenty minutes pasted and then the manager entered the theater with the media, so that they could interview audience members coming to see Wolverine. The screen was still not fixed. I went over to the manager and said could we get the pre-show fixed (They just had to pan the LCD project over) and that I hoped that Wolverine didn't look like this. (I know it's a separate projector). The response I got was "It's only the pre-show". I'm sure the local advertisers would like to hear that the theater doesn't give a crap what the image looks like. They finally corrected it when the camera man starting taking a shot of it. Then the best part was when Wolverine started it was only in pink. We were in a digital theatre. It took 9 restarts of the film (20 minutes) to get it looking properly. It's pretty bad when I expect the film to crash rather then it happening the odd time. The last film we went to see was Star Trek and to our surprise it played without any problems.
  • Betterchill
    First off I would like to say great article! I have to agree with just about everything you said in it! It is great to read perspectives from people who have worked in theaters! I have been working full time at an independent movie theater in Vermont where our ancient projectors arise with problems quite often. Most of the time we get more than one person to come out to alert us which is annoying because it is generally one after the other and you just need to be like yes I know I will take care of that right away! Most of the time people aren't cool about it though and we generally disperse free small popcorn comeback cards or if the film cannot be fixed at that time a pass or there money back. Again, great article!
  • I understand that these sort of things happen, but part of the cinema experience is the escapism, and having a projector break mid-film is just another reminder that you're sitting in a theater in the real world. It takes you out of the moment. For instance, I (like a lot of other people my age) waited in line for hours and hours and hours to see Star Wars Ep 1. After what felt like decades outside, then getting herded in and sitting in seats crammed next to a gazillion people, the lights dimmed, then went out. The theater was dark. The moment I had been waiting months and months for was finally here. My childhood dreams were coming true - I was experiencing a new chapter in the franchise. The excitement was palpable. A hush fell over the crowd. Suddenly, the theme burst forth from the sound system and the opening crawl began, and the entire audience went totally and completely apesh*t. Cheers, howls of joy, laughter, applause. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment... ...and then the projector broke. The audience sat stunned for a moment. I looked around to make sure I wasn't imagining it. Then, the crowd turned. Boos and hisses. People yelled insults and profanities. The lights came up while they worked to fix the problem (which they eventually did). However, when the problem was fixed, and the lights once again dimmed, and the opening crawl once again rolled... there were no cheers. No applause, no laughter. The moment was ruined. It's not something you can "do over". Thankfully, the movie was crap and ruined my hopes all on it's own, but to this day I still regret having that one beautiful moment ruined by shoddy equipment or a fallable projectionist.
  • Rob, I understand why and how busy you were, but it's certainly your fault more than the audience's that they sat through a movie shown through the wrong lens. It's your job as projectionist to monitor each film, especially in the beginning few minutes, when it most matters. Audience members can not be blames in these situations, especially when they might miss part of the story to get up and go complain. Last night I sat through an entire documentary with bad sound and bad framing (the subtitles were half off the screen) but didn't get up because it was an intense and informative film and I would have lost more than I was already to get up and have the problems corrected.
  • wm
    I saw H20 in the theatre and the moment Jamie Lee is screaming "MIchael!!" The projector chewed that fucking film up. You saw it melting, just like a Grindhouse film. After that we pretty much knew the film was unfixable. They gave us rainchecks, but we forgot to go back.
  • yayayayayayayay
    who the fuck cares about anything said in this article?
  • Mat
    #10: If there were any half competent projectionist around the film should have been up and running in a couple minutes. There's only a handful of problems that can't be fixed in under five minutes with the proper training. (I'm speaking of film and not digital projection.) The melting you saw likely only damaged one or two frames (it melts because it's stuck and won't move.) I'm from an era where the show must go on. I've turned a platter by hand and many other wacky things just to keep the show rolling. Sadly, most theatres are more inclined to hand out passes then to actually do something.
  • Cyrus
    I think that this is the kind of attitude that has ruined movie theaters and caused a whole lot of us to ask ourselves if we really want to pay for this kind of amateur bullcr@p. Most of us have HD TVs at home and good sound systems. I dont have a blu-ray player yet but the more I read things like this... the more I think that it would be a good investment. I would like to enjoy my movie at home anyway. There are far too many annoying things beyond my control at a theater. Add to that getting ripped off for the food and drinks, crappy service from the people, shoddy training for the projectionists and now this blaaa attitude from Mr. Campbell about how much it amuses him to see people get upset about the failures of his industry... well... I think I can do better on my own. I can wait for DVDs rather than go out of my way to visit your location and get screwed around and then have you judge me because I care about the quality of what I am paying for. Thanks for the enlightenment. I dont expect you to take your job super seriously but man... this is sad. -Cy
  • RC
    I really like this article. I'm not sure if you remember or not, Chris, but I was the apparent troublemaker in your piece about popcorn. I work projection right now and I know exactly what all of that is like. It seems like your projection booth is just about identical to mine. It's really unfortunate, though, that all these people (commenters on this article included) think that problems with the movie are always the projectionist's fault. There's really only so much you can do unless you're trained in the inner workings (circuit boards, itty-bitty mechanical moving parts, etc). If a movie gets stuck and it burns through a few frames, that's no big deal. That's fixed within 2-4 minutes. If you get a brain wrap (our word for film getting caught in the loops on the center of the platter, not sure if it's a popular term), then it may take a little longer to get it all untangled. #4 and #5 have it spot-on. We projectionists do our best with what's given to us, and it's not all state of the art or well-cared for all the time, and many times it's not our fault. We can say things to a manager a million times, but in the end we may end up working with a projector that just won't quite fit Scope movies onto the screen or a sound system where the surround doesn't work out of one speaker. And as they said, if ANYTHING looks or sounds the slightest bit wrong, let an employee know. Chances are we can fix it. The only time I can really see a catastrophic failure is when the motor quits out or a bulb goes bad (and even a bulb may not take long to replace, but long enough that some customers get too impatient). #9: I agree that projectionists need to take better care to see if it's in the right frame. Too many times I've had to run up to our booth when there's a new projectionist and change the lens for them because someone in the audience brought their complaint to me. Sometimes they get rushed and thread the film really fast and forget to switch lenses, other times the build-up person put a Flat preview on when the movie itself is Scope. Either way it's really unacceptable. #13: I'm sorry your moviegoing experiences have been poor, but sometimes it's worth paying the higher prices and going to the better theater in town to get better service. You might also try to find a theater with digital projectors, because it eliminated 90% of these common problems (although it does create problems of its own...). If you only HAVE one theater, then I'm sorry for you, and it may be time to splurge on that Blu-ray. We don't treat our jobs like life and death, but we try to make everyone's experience as enjoyable as possible (and we want to avoid complaints coming our way), so we do the best we can. As I said before, it's not always our fault directly. Thankfully the moviegoers in my town seem to mostly understand that shit happens. If yours don't, then it can get to be a real headache for all parties.
  • Dave Bullock
    As a fellow former projectionist I can see where you're coming from - although there are times the behaviour of the non-technical house staff does irritate me - If someone goes out with a fairly specific message - say for example that the film is out of rack or focus, or the sound keeps fluttering or someting in screen x - why do half of them insist on following you back to the auditorium to see for themselves? You've got a radio - make the damned call! At the ciname (and film society) I used to work for we had regular technical shows for the rest of the staff in which we'd demonstrate common problems, what they were called and what caused them. We also impressed upon the staff that if someone came to them with a problem their first port of call was us in proj (can you tell thats a pet peeve of mine :) ) One thing to remember though is that at typical multimplex's its all computer controlled stuff with one or two projectionists looking after maybe 20 screens so don't be suprised if a problem deveops and isn't fixed until someone thinks to mention it - all it takes is a polite word in a staff member's ear and the message is relayed to the people that can fix it for you. Emphasis on the polite, and if you can tell them exactly what the problem is so much the better. It is remarkable how passive a lot of cinema audiences can be though - I went to the loo midway through a film and came back to find the film 25% out of rack - clearly a splicing error, but in the few minutes I'd been away noone had thought to let anyone know. Out of interest, fellow projectionists - have you found that it's made you a quality nazi? I absolutely cannot sit still if theres a problem with the projection and have to let somone know to get it fixed - a couple of other people I know with a similar background are the same too and it has driven my fiancee nuts for years :)
  • Dr Robotnik
    Personally, I go to the movies to see a movie. Not for these "experiences" that you've been talking about. The most experiences I experience are the obligatory overpriced Icee and Popcorn and Whoppers, and going to the bathroom after the film. A movie theater isn't a Disney World "attraction." We don't go to be entertained by the fact that it's nostalgic to see movies at a theater, not yet at least, wait until the movie theater is a dying fad before you go to one for nostalgia, to enjoy your feet sticking to the floor, to enjoy the little black circle in the corner that everyone sees but doesn't think it actually happened because it happened so fast.
  • pipo
    I hate it when everything is out of focus and only me seems to be disgusted...
  • thejugfather
    i don't see why the theaters don't just switch formats and show the movies on DVD like they are printed on and circulated around hollywood and then "find" their way onto the internet. if the movies are printed on DVD anyway why not switch the theaters and end all of the "experiences" of which some speak so highly. personally i could careless if there is a problem with a movie during a showing unless it happens at a key moment and then when the projector is working again they put you into a totally different scene, only happened a couple of times but it was bad enough for me to complain. usually i won't complain because there will ALWAYS be someone less patient than me to go and complain to the manager. i just sit and wait because all the complaining by me who knows absolutely nothing about the way the projector works is useless, let the professionals tinker with it, that's what they're paid to do!
  • I'm sick of projectionists. The past 5 movies... FIVE have been out of focus, including THE OPENING NIGHT SHOWING OF STAR TREK! I had to go and tell some one!
  • lando
    I expect some sort of issue with watching a movie, its part of the business so Im no totally angered when it happens, however, I had an experience with a screening of wolverine two weeks ago that really made me question if I wanted to continue patronage of my local theater or just start driving a few extra minutes to the local giant cinema complex down the street (with its digital projection and stadium seating). I noticed that the front right channel sounded blown! it would crackle whenever there was any action or loud sound and it bugged the hell out of me so I politely told the management whos answer was to kill the surround sound, lower the volume and channel everything to the center speaker! At this point, I realized I had just paid a bunch of money for NOT ONLY a crappy movie, but a crappy WATCHING experience, I had just paid to see a large screen tv with a soundsystem inferior to what I had at home... These kinds of experiences make me want to stay home, wait for the dvd or visit a friend who just downloads everything before it even comes out!
  • Orangutang
    Not so fun when it breaks down 3 seconds after the beam onto Nero's ship in Startrek. The print melts, film dies. Then they give you a readmit! I just wanted the last 15 minutes dammit.
  • Rob
    @ 9.. i completely agree it was my fault but with about 5 print moves (getting ready for start trek the next day) and putting star trek itself together and the bare bones staff that is on on Wednesday nights I slipped up, but once something is clearly wrong for the audiences sake it is good to have someone correct you instead of the embarrassment of poor projectioning,
  • Our projector broke right at the beginning of Star Trek at the midnight showing with all the uber trekkies. It made the movie so much better because there were dozens of nerds yelling out absurd suggestions about how to fix the issue. Plus we got the see the film (an hour late), and we got free passes too. I definitely know what you mean about it being entertaining when things go awry though.
  • Ceddas
    I am a new Projectionist at the theater I work at. I only have 4 shifts so far in projection when a movie or a projector start I always make sure I am at the projector that is starting and I always make sure the film is in forces and in frame, as well I make sure the sound is 100% excellent as well make sure if I need to change to lens if I have to. my last shift I basically had to change the projector from scope to flat I basically forgot to change the lens so I was wondering why the screen didn't look right. So I went though the basics what I was taught to figure out I forgot to change the lens from scope to flat so it was fix under 1mins and 20secs and the movie was still in the previews. As a projectionist I always like to be told if something need to be fixed like if sound isn't on during the pre-show. I differently like being told if the film is out of focus or out of frame then I can work on those skills. As a new projectionist I like having a senior projectionist on while I am working up in projection just in case if something goes wrong. I want to say if you are a guest in a movie theater please inform one of the theater staff if sound isn't right, if the picture isn't in frame or if half the picture isn't on the screen or if the film is out of focus while in a preview then we can fix it right away instead of doing it while in the actual movie.

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