The State of Cinema: Poor Projection Quality is Here to Stay - Unless You Make a Difference
by Alex Billington
December 8, 2007
It's been mentioned as one of the major problems with movie theaters these days, but usually gets pushed to the bottom of the list below rowdy teenagers and over-priced concessions and tickets - poor projection quality. In theaters all around the world, movies play out-of-focus, framed incorrectly, with low volume or bad sound, and no one says anything or even cares. Back in April I even wrote an article when a screening of Disturbia turned out terrible at a local Landmark theater and it aggravated me enough to say something about it. Thanks to a recent post at Jeffrey Wells' Hollywood Elsewhere, we get one of the best explanations as to why this issue persists.
A reader first sent in a letter complaining about a screening of Sweeney Todd that was a disaster in terms of projection, and in turn another response from Wells and the reader came about with some great points. Here's the underlying dilemma with cinema projection, as described by Hollywood Elsewhere's reader:
Wrecktum remarked that "the biggest travesty" affecting the poor-projection-standards problem in the nation's theatres "is that audiences never care. They'll sit through a movie with green scratches on all reels, digital sound dropping out every few minutes, the image hanging half off the screen…bad splices, bad dirt, bad everything. And they don't seem to mind."
I couldn't have found a more perfect explanation as to why this issue consistently occurs. Jeffrey Wells kicks in his own statement too, saying: "The underlying factor is that most moviegoers don't seem to even notice when projection standards are poor (largely because they've never seen films projected the right way, as they are in studio screening rooms and theaters like L.A.'s Arclight), and of these 99.9% would rather suffer in silence than speak up."
Wouldn't you feel much more satisfied spending $10 on a ticket if you could distinctly tell the difference between the visual and aural quality at your local theater and your 72" HDTV at home? I know I am much more satisfied, but that's cause I'm a bit spoiled by screenings at the best theaters in the world, like the Arclight and on studio lots as Wells mentioned. I've been sent DVD screeners of movies and have refused to watch them because I want to see them at the movie theater where the visual quality is just that much better. But I want to fight for everyone else, because I hate going down to my local movie theater to catch some movie and I watch it with barely audible sound and a completely out-of-focus picture - it destroys the experience for me and everyone else.
"If only 10% of moviegoers had my attitude (i.e., politely but firmly pointing out problems if they exist), projection would be improved all around because squeaky wheels always get the grease." Here's where we need all of you to take action. If you don't speak up and make sure your theater, wherever it is, has got their projection quality under control, then poor projection quality will be here to stay forever. And once you finally see that one movie with perfect projection that one time, you'll quickly start to realize how bad everything else looks and how much you really want to watch every movie you see with perfect projection. Then you'll start to realize your ticket price is certainly worth it.
As much as I can sit here and complain and point out the obvious issues with the state of cinema these days, I can't be the only one going out and changing the world. There are just too many movie theaters and too many stubborn movie theater managers for me to achieve that alone. The sooner everyone starts improving the state of cinema together, the sooner we will all start enjoying the experience more. It's been said enough (by me and others like Jeffrey Wells), and those of you know who it, preach it - the experience at the movie theater is unique and worthwhile if everything is right, and that starts with making sure the projection quality is perfect.
Just recently I saw The Darjeeling Limited and there were these 4 green diagonal lines in the middle screen that would go from the top to the bottom and keep doing so. Also a few days ago I saw Into The Wild and the projection wasn't centered so some of the picture was on the wall, a very small portion of the picture, but it was still very frustrating.
Nick O. on Dec 8, 2007
just let me up there and it will never ever happen!!
ha1rball on Dec 9, 2007
You rock, Alex. Its a shame the THX certified theatre thing is a thing of the past. While, even in LA, I saw it abused and undeserving theatres receiving it, the idea was awesome: if a theatre boasted it was THX certified, you knew that it met certain standards. You should lead an initiative encouraging bloggers or readers in different cities to find the five best and worst theatres in their areas that meet or fall flat on sound, projection, etc. Then let the theatre owners know where they stand. Who wants to be known for sucking?
David Markland on Dec 9, 2007
That stuff only bothers me when the film first starts... then I tune it out and don't notice or remember it. And I never go to the movies to see the movie. I go for the atmosphere and to be with friends. When I really want to see a movie, I get the DVD and watch it quietly at home.
Manda on Dec 9, 2007
As a projectionist and theatre manager I need to add my two cents. I'm a perfectionist when it comes to presentation but even us perfectionists are bound by our employers and what they consider 'good enough' and are willing to shell out money for. Unfortunately audiences speak with their wallets which just goes to show what a group of moronic sheep most of them are. People who do care need to complain. Loudly! Not to management either - we have little say in the matter and our words often fall on deaf ears. Write/Call corporate. For example: My current employer refuses to replace sub-standard and/or scratched reels, etc., for fear of financial liability (up to $5000 per print). I've been working here three months and one print had a HUGE green scratch down the middle for half the film. MUCH TO MY DISMAY only a half dozen or so customers found it distracting and not a single member of the floorstaff of this theatre felt it was distracting. Not one customer complained or asked for a refund/re-admit. I'm told that in it's first weekend at this theatre (prior to my employment here) the print of the Pixar film Cars was thoroughly scratched all the way across the image with black and green scratches and they played the film like that for five weeks. They grossed a ton of money and there were few if any complaints. I am at a professional low-point in my life. The majority of consumers just don't care. I miss working in L.A. and Seattle where a higher percentage of film-goers expect quality presentation. In regards to a previous poster's comment on THX certified theatres. That was a load of crap. THX certified anyone who paid for a certification. I saw The Matrix it's opening weeking in a THX certified UA theatre in Vegas and it was scratched, the light was dim with just a hot spot in the lower right corner and the sound wouldn't stay in digital but the left channel didn't work anyway. I got my money back after 1/2 hour and a small tantrum in the lobby. Perhaps people don't complain because they're just looking for a place to sit in the dark and make a mess, wipe snot on the seats and walls and throw feces on the bathroom ceilings. My former employers, in most cases, would back me up in regards to whatever it took to keep a quality presentation. Sadly, a move to a more calm way of life in the mountains has caused my blood pressure to rise and my faith in mankind to diminish.
Depressed on Dec 9, 2007
Boy, talk about blaming the victim. I'm doing my part. I don't go to theaters that do a lousy job. I'm sick of having to get up to tell you how to do your f'ing job. I just don't come to your crappy theater any more. Go out of business. Starve. Sell your children into white slavery. I don't care, it's not my job to force you to stop ruining the tiny bit that's left of the theatrical exhibition business. If you can't figure out how to project 35mm right after a frigging CENTURY, it's not my responsibility to get you to care.
Mike G on Dec 9, 2007
My biggest problem is when the sound mix is poor at a theater. I hate it when a movie is too quiet or the dialogue is muted. But this problem (plus bad projection) is minute when compared to the ridiculous nature of the average movie-goer.
Chase K on Dec 9, 2007
Hey Mike G., I'm with ya all the way and my fault was in generalizing the movie-going public. I have 20 years of projection experience and a total of 30 years of showmanship under my belt. As a projectionist, I am one of the tops of my field. Consider horn to be tooted. I'm doing what I can to improve the presentation at the multiplex I find myself managing. I keep the curtains operating, the sound up to specs, the light output is best as I can get it, the projectors all cleaned daily, the seats repaired, light bulbs changed, and we don't put up with any bullshit from the teens and talking/cell phones/etc. You need to tell the folks who run the theatres you don't go to why you don't go to them. I would hope that If more theatre owners heard from the public who are unhappy with the quality of the movie-going experience perhaps things would change for the better. Theatre owners are blaming the rise of home theatres and poor quality product for the decline of theatre-goers. Theatre owners just need to go to their own theatres to see why people aren't going.
Depressed on Dec 10, 2007
Alex, it doesn't look like that's what 'Depressed' is saying at all. Looks like he’s as conscientious as he can be. Customer feedback is an important part of every quality control process and should be proactive as well as reactive. Being available and or willing to listen to customers does not draw the same data as seeking their input. In any business, your deliverable isn’t the best it can be unless you know your customers are pleased. Ticket sales are obviously not the best measurement of cinema customer satisfaction, nor is ranting in a blog. If you’re unhappy with your cinematic experience, don’t limit your feedback to the local facility. Find the corporate website & present your feedback there. Do the same to the studio. If the cinema claims THX certification, complain there as well. You think a cinema chain won’t care if you tell them you intend to budget your entertainment funds toward a DVD experience and not ticket purchase? ‘Depressed’, I’m curious, do you use a spotting scope or decent field glasses from your projection floor? Do you have access to quality, calibrated reflective light and color temperature meters? A sound pressure level meter? How often are the house sound systems EQ’d and calibrated?
Joel Schiffman on Dec 10, 2007
I'm agrreing with alex on this one well dont get me wrong it does have some to do with higher power but 90% of this problem is the projectionists running the projectors. I was working with projectors for almost 5 years and i know more about IMAX projectors then probably 95% of the people on this planet!! It all comes down to the projectionists not taking pride in there work not threading the projector properly making there loops the right size or building the movie while wearing gloves! They just speed right threw not caring and thats where most of the scratches come form! in my 5 years i found it very rare that the print was actually sent scratched its always a projectionists fault. hey start the movie and walk away fromt he port window with out ever checking the soud or the framing! When i was up there i was a perfectionist and thats the type of peopele these theatres need up there. Fortunately the theatre i worked for would replace the reals when they were scratched well atleast they used to since i havn't been there it seems liek the quality of perjectionists have gone down and it all starts with the projectionist pointing out whats wrong with things after all they see and hear the film differently then everyone else even all the big managers that work there see it differentyl then they do cause they do hear and see it for 8+ hours a day. Bottom line we nned to becareful with who we hire up there all our cinematic adventures depend on it!!
ha1rball on Dec 10, 2007
Sorry ha1rball, I think you’re doing a disservice to skill-set by saying “90% of this problem is the projectionists”. I don’t claim to be a projectionist. I do, however, know my way around a cinema and an IMAX. I’ve spent the past 7 years in every corner of various cinema facilities from one house “Mom & Pop” independents, and drive-ins to 36 screen Cineplexes; from England’s pride, the British Film Institute’s National Film Theatre, (including London’s IMAX) to the Beijing Theater, the oldest, continuously-running multi-purpose house in the world. (The claim is believable; it’s old & tired.) Yes, US chains, too. I’ve NEVER met a projectionist who didn’t take pride in his work, or failed to provide the best screening possible, every time. I have, however, worked with many untrained, or ill-trained candy-selling, ticketing-taking, splice the trailers, gotta-sweep-the-floor-next, allowed to push the projector’s “go button”, part-time employees. This type of employee is NOT a projectionist, couldn’t reset a screen mask or focus a lens if they were allowed to, and to call them projectionists is an insult to those who have earned the title and the position. I’ve also found many such staff members to be as diligent and concerned about a quality customer experience as they can be within the operating boundaries set for them. IMHO, to point a finger for an unsatisfactory show at a projectionist or operator, someone qualified as such, or not, is simplistic and unfair. I think it equally simplistic to insist there’s a single cause or responsibility without knowing all the relevant information. If a cinema willingly uses damaged reels or platters, ignores ticket buyer’s complaints of bad sound, or poor image focus or position, the solution is not unloading on the guy coming down the steps from the projection booth. I know first hand of one large cinema chain that has set a corporate policy to run the lamp currents low on every projector, which extends lamp life and saves some money. Every showing looks blue. I know of another large chain, which has NO projectionists on staff. They have “engineering” crews supporting 80 –120 screens, sometimes in multiple states, per 3 or 4 man crew. You reckon the odds are good one or more of them will be in-house when you tell the ticket taker the effects channels in house #9 are dead? This list goes on. I’ve also seen diligence and commitment, such as someone volunteering to drive through the night to deliver a needed spare so the first show in the morning goes off on time. You don’t like watching a scratched print? When buying your ticket, ask if the showing is digital? If it’s not, ask when it will be? Ask every time. Why? Digital prints, electronic files, don’t scratch, age, break or pickup dust. When you’re speaking (or confronting) a cinema employee, don’t do it with popcorn breath or a bucket of Coke in your hand. Concessions are where they make the most money. You dropped 12 bucks on them for popcorn, now you want a re-ticket to come back & drop 12 more. [With pleasure sir.] “Sorry for your inconvenience”. If a projectionist or any cinema employee is unhappy because they’re not allowed to do their job as well as they’re capable, and if they can’t change the conditions, they need to try to change their situation. BTW, if you don’t mind; reel (r?l) n. A device, such as a cylinder, spool, or frame, that turns on an axis and is used for winding and storing rope, tape, film, or other flexible materials. real (r? al) adj. True and actual; not imaginary, alleged, or ideal: If a local “Mom & Pop” cinema, or a big chain doesn’t care to know if you are or aren’t a satisfied customer, shame on them. If you’re dissatisfied with what you paid for at the cinema, and you keep going back, complaining where it’s convenient and not where it might be effective, I guess we’ll be hearing from you again.
Joel Schiffman on Dec 10, 2007
Has anyone ever thought about the idea that the current cinematic experience, as it has played-out over the last 9+ decades, will eventually become obsolete as other options becoming readily available to consumers? For instance, Digital Projection, the bane of the exhibition establishment, is eventually going to replace print projection...thus eliminating all those pesky problems with print deterioration and mechanical projection breakdowns. Additionally, once this transformation occurs another possible prediction becomes readily accessible: the actual real-time digital downloading of films directly from the studios to the consumers home wall-mounted flat screen Hi-def entertainment centers, for a price of course...thus transforming the public's options of viewing films. I predict that the concept of seeing cinema within a public environment will eventually become irrelevant (with the exception of those film archives/museums that still project film for the purpose of providing the public with a taste of what we all used to do), replaced by the direct digital downloading of new films, for a fee, from those studios producing them. We already have the technology to download film, though inferior still in quality, from internet sources...it's only a matter of time when the possible scenario of inviting a few friends over to watch the latest sci-fi movie on your flat screen/hi-def surround sound set-up becomes reality.
Pablo on Dec 12, 2007
alright, Im a projectionist at a family-owned theatre, and Im going to have to agree with "Depressed". a lot of the times, the problems are out of our hands. we have people under the title of "projection manager", but they dont have the ability (status-wise) to order new bulbs or lenses when they go to shit. I admit that Im a lazy person. but when it comes to running movies, I do my best at running them correctly. it's always in focus, and when it's not in frame, it's usually because of a bad splice somewhere. but the one problem that bothers me the most, is when the xenon bulb blows or dims, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. I had to play No Country For Old Men with one of those bulbs, and I felt as if I should have been paying the people to watch it. it's awful. and film scratches are not ALWAYS the projectionist's problem. yes, they are usually caused by poor threading. but a lot of the times, the machines act up and jump the film's loop, thus making it slap against the machine itself. resulting in scratching it. so yeah, most complaints should be taken up not with manager, but with the owner. my manager has barely any say in ordering $2000+ parts either.
Branden on Dec 13, 2007
We have the same problems in Australia, however the exhibitors have an even stronger stranglehold here: http://symscovington.blogspot.com/2008/01/hes-lost-control_07.html
syms covington on Jan 8, 2008
I watched HP and the Deathly Hallows last night at myVUE cinema in the UK. I have to say that in the day and age of HD content in the home, all that my cinema can manage is this rubbish, badly blurred, incorrectly framed image. What is going on, this is no longer the 1980's when an image like this was acceptable. What are they, should I just stay away from your cinema and wait for the blu-ray release? This isnt the first time, it's just the first time that I've felt strongly enough to do something about it and complain. How can we get ourselves heard ? You wrote your article in Dec 2007, its now Nov 2010 - Nothing has changed !
Ray Reid on Nov 24, 2010
I was a head projectionist at the local cinema here for 5 years. I always took pride in my work and tried to achieve the highest quality for our customers. It wasn't an easy thing runny 3 screens at once with equipment that was rather antiquated. We had no automation, our platters used to drop out on the takeup quite a lot, resulting in a projection room full of film. I even worked at a cinema with an old RCA projector filling in for a few weeks. this projector leaked so much oil I had to rig up a gutter to stop oil getting on the print. It ran into a coke cup and I just kept topping up the projector from the cup! Changing xenons was always a worry, we had face sheilds and thick gloves but you can't wear gloves whilst tightening the thumbscrew in a little GJS projector and I had a cheap bulb that was slightly bent in manufacture let go its gas one day-thank god it didn't explode. Despite all the problems I really miss projecting and look for other cinemas from time to time hoping for an opening. I guess it gets in your blood.
Peter Mills on Dec 6, 2010
Let's not only blame the 'silent' moviegoers -- let's blame the ignorant and douchey projectionists/managers, too! I went to see a movie the other night and the projection was piss poor! The movie was all out of frame, tops and sides cut off -- it was basically a square inside the screen, and the sound was terrible. So I complained... The douche bag manager said, "That's the way they gave it to us." I asked for a refund and was told they only do that if I had the tickets, so I had to go digging in the garbage to find my stubs, and could only recover 5 of the six, so I basically paid them 12 bucks to see shit on a screen for 10 minutes and then leave.
pete agassi on May 5, 2012
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