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A Troubling Statement on the State of Movie Projection

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire May 7, 2013 at 12:01PM

A variety of factors have conspired to decimate the field of projectionists. But we might need them now more than ever.
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Theater Seats

Buried within this very interesting Los Angeles Times' article about the evolving landscape of "midnight movies" (in quotes because in many places they don't actually start at midnight anymore) is a troubling statement on the state of movie projection in this country. It's from Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution at Warner Brothers, and it's his explanation why big blockbusters had routinely begun premiering Thursdays at midnight instead of Friday mornings (at least until a recent push for an even earlier start time of 10:00 PM on Thursday). Here's his quote, along with context from Mark Olsen and Amy Kaufman: 

"Around the same time, the industry was moving from film prints to push-button digital projection systems, lowering the cost of adding midnight shows. 'Before digital, when you had projectionists in the booth, that projectionist would go home after 10 p.m. because many of them were in the union,' said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. 'If you wanted to run a midnight show, you'd have to pay that projectionist overtime.'"

Fellman doesn't explicitly say it, but the implication is that the rise of these "push-button digital projection systems" have rendered old school film projectionists obsolete, which made Thursday late night openings more financially feasible. You don't need to pay a union projectionist period, so you definitely don't need to pay a union projectionist overtime to stay at the theater after hours to run a midnight movie. What was once a skilled job that required training and expertise requires almost none. As one downsized projectionist said on a recent episode of American Public Media's "Marketplace," "My favorite quote is still the studio executive who said 'we have a robust system and we can pay any idiot $5 an hour to run it.'"

But can any idiot run it? By coincidence, one of the worst moviegoing experiences I had in years was at a recent midnight movie -- actually starting at midnight, not 10:00 PM -- which I was supposed to cover for ScreenCrush. Midnight came and went and nothing happened. Twenty minutes went by, and the movie never started. Eventually, we started to worry that they'd forgotten about us, and the theater definitely might have until we called downstairs to the box office to complain. Someone in the projection booth had clearly pressed a button and walked away. When there was a glitch, either with the digital print or the projector itself, there was no one around to notice. Or, sadly, to fix it, once we told them about the problem; after another half hour or so of waiting, the audience was given a refund and sent on its way.

I saw "Zero Dark Thirty" for the first time at Sony Pictures' private screening room, in their corporate office building. The film looked magnificent; crisp, clear, and bright. About a month or so later I saw the movie a second time at a multiplex owned by one of the largest movie theater exhibition chains in the country. This time, the movie was dingy, drab, and dark. Projected improperly, the final raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound was completely incomprehensible, and even though I'd already seen the film, I struggled to follow the action. If anyone else in the theater but me noticed, they said nothing. Later, I wrote an email complaint to the theater on an unrelated matter -- there were all kinds of non-projection-related issues around the screening -- and I mentioned offhandedly at the end of my note that the projection was far too dark. My first email response from the theater's manager said no one had complained about the darkness of the movie, but after more correspondence he informed me that, yes, the bulb in that auditorium's projector was "defective," and was eventually replaced.

It's good that this theater cared enough about my complaints to investigate and fix them. But what if I hadn't said anything? How long would they have shown "Zero Dark Thirty" improperly to oblivious customers? It was eleven days between my bad experience and the email letting me know they'd fixed the screwy projector -- how many people saw "Zero Super Dark Thirty" in that time?

This is not an uncommon situation. Increasingly, I notice how good movies look when projected at private corporate screenings rooms and how bad movies look projected at major multiplexes -- even at press screenings, where you'd think the staff would be on their best behavior. In the last few weeks I've seen two new blockbusters in 3D; one at a Times Square multiplex, and one at a studio's private screening room. The multiplex blockbuster looked murky; its nighttime action scenes were basically gibberish. The privately screened blockbuster looked magnificent; even in 3D, it practically glistened, and the low-light action sequences were easy to follow.

The reason why seems obvious: the private rooms are staffed by professional projectionists, the multiplexes by unskilled employees working the "robust system."

I understand that movies are a business, and that movie theaters, squeezed every which way, need to make a profit somewhere. In an age when digital projectors mean a movie can be processed and played with a few keystrokes and mouse clicks, maybe that somewhere is the projection booth. On the other hand, even when they're squeezed every which way movie theaters should still give a damn about whether the audience is satisfied with their experience. Digital projection may be easier, but it's still not easy -- especially when the nebulous parameters of 3D are thrown into the equation. 

Nobody noticed how dark "Zero Dark Thirty" was. Nobody spoke up to complain about how crummy that blockbuster looked in 3D. But on a subconscious level, the dissatisfaction registers. It's possible you don't even blame the projection -- projectionists are, famously, invisible when they're doing their job correctly. So you start to blame the movies themselves, for looking kind of drab, and dull, and bad, especially when compared to the gigantic beautiful HD television sitting in your living room. To compete with that, the theatrical experience needs to get better, not worse. Or at some point any idiot will be running that robust system for an audience of zero.

Read more of "Moviegoing at the Midnight Hour."

This article is related to: From the Wire


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