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A Troubling Statement on the State of Movie Projection

by Matt Singer
May 7, 2013 12:01 PM
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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."

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  • DR. ASLAM SIDDIQUI | February 20, 2014 10:40 AMReply

    Lots of ppl go on and on about bad 35mm projection but i distinctly remember with fondness having watched lots of hollywood and bollywood movies right from my childhood in 70s till the advent of digital projection here in india and i dont ever remember a badly projected 35mm or a 70mm film. But i have lots of issues with digital projection. I feel the projected image now is 1.3k and not even 2k and this is the reason why lots of cinephiles are dejected by digital projection.4k should be the standard set by DCI which i feel is equivalent to 35mm until then like steven i will stick to my 1080p blu ray home theatre.

  • John Fink | May 13, 2013 5:05 PMReply

    Leaving the Real D polarizer on a 2D film has become a pet peeve of mine (especially at AMC) - so much so I've gotten into the habit of calling ahead and asking if the film will be presented correctly so we can go elsewhere if not. This process usually takes 10-minutes for whomever picks, lost by the question (normally they answer: it's in 2D, its just digital projection, not 3D). Ugh. My hope, especially when you're paying first run prices is the movie is in focus and correctly framed, the popcorn is fresh, the sound is clear and the seats are comfortable. This should be standard at any cinema charging first run prices, but sadly its not.

  • M R Goucher | May 9, 2013 7:44 AMReply

    Please allow a projection technology history lesson. Most of the early errors up to the multi-screen era were flame-outs of the carbon arcs and film breaks, due to the 35mm film strip's fragile nature. Both events were rapidly repaired by a "dedicated" projectionist. Union or not, a theatre had one screen and one on-duty projectionist who did not have multiple duties. Then came the Xenon lamp and 6,000-foot reels, allowing almost 60 minutes between change-overs, no more flame-outs, and added duties for the non-union projectionist--but union projectionists still had good contracts. Fixing a dead Xenon Lamp took much more time, up to 10 or 20 minutes from 10 seconds for arcs, and film breaks continued as a common event, and proved more disastrous when the projectionist was elsewhere doing "additional duties." The advent of platters and the multiplex created an opportunity for close-start scheduling and up to 2 full hours of "additional duties" in between start-ups but didn't solve film breaks which became long time-outs for audiences. Big corporate theatre circuits and even the studios sought a solution from Kodak, the world's biggest film manufacturer. Solution: virtually indestructible strip film. Now big cinemas started to dump projectionists into the trash heap, union projectionists especially. "Technology," they said, "has rendered the projectionist unnecessary." Union projectionists were able to hang on, but with fewer and fewer jobs. This resulted in longer and longer waits for audiences during projection booth mishaps, and lost revenue at the box office. Studios and cinema circuits harped and pushed for electronic cinema. So, about seven years ago, the "majors" and the bankers worked out a financial arrangement so corporate theaters could finance a massive replacement of strip film technology with electronic "digital" technology. This left most locally-owned "mom and pop" cinemas out of the equation--a reduction in competition side effect loved by the bigs. It also left most projection unions out in the cold, as "digital cinema" clauses had been worked into their contracts, slashing jobs as more and more electronic projectors were employed.
    From the first rollout, digital cinema had issues with those multi-tasked theatre employees. Technology which promised to reduce booth staffing to ZERO required a great deal of attention. The skill set was completely different and a great usher, candy seller or even a manager could not master any but the most meager operational skills. All serious repairs were farmed out to outside contractors or roving repair men who come around once every couple of weeks of less. Sometimes an entire auditorium or two can be out of service for that length of time.
    And that brings us up to today and the visible lack of attention to what is on the screen. A theatre's profit center is the "concession stand," so named because the earliest movie entrepreneurs leased out that end of the business to an outside party. Now it is their financial bloodstream and heartbeat. The price of a ticket is split unevenly with the studios who foot most of the bill for advertising and promoting every new movie.
    And the movie itself is just a lure to get those "suckers born every minute" to come inside and not bring their own personal refreshments, which is forbidden by company policy.

  • JoeS | May 7, 2013 7:25 PMReply

    This article leads me to a couple of points to make:

    1. Although everything Singer mentions in the article about the dimness of many theaters is true, one large issue that isn't mentioned is the quality of digital in general. Simply put, it isn't as good as 35mm. You get grey "blacks" and poorer shadow detail. One of the reasons why all the private screenings Singer attends look so much better, is that they are usually in much smaller screening rooms than a giant movie house. It is simply much easier to get a decent image on a 15 foot screen than a 50 footer.

    2. The fact that nobody complained about the dimness of the ZERO DARK 30 projection isn't surprising. 99.9% of folks aren't aware of the grey "blacks" or the gauzy look of shadow detail with digital either. My biggest fear now with digital is that audiences will grow to accept the darker, greyer and cloudier look of 2K and 4K digital and future improvements to 8K and beyond will be stunted (at least for the majority of theaters). Think I'm overstating things? Recall that we as a country settled for inferior NTSC TV vs the rest of the world - and, that lasted 60+ YEARS before HD. And, music fans who once embraced CDs played on large home sound systems with powerful receivers and speakers, now settle for compressed MP3s on tiny earbuds. The lowest common denominator often rules.

  • Steven Romano | May 7, 2013 2:58 PMReply

    There's one thing in these comments that no one realizes. All multiplex theaters, and I mean ALL of them throughout the country, do not change their lenses when showing non 3-D films. Next time you go to a movie in a multiplex, just glance back for a minute at the projection booth glass. If you see a double image on that glass, and it's not a 3-D film, they didn't change the lens.
    Why? The 3-D lens is the size of a small microwave oven. One mistake switching it and it's smashed on the floor. The little candy girl who runs the projection booth, wants to keep her job and not get in trouble. Besides, there's a long line waiting for overpriced popcorn and soda. She just doesn't have the time. Who gives a damn anyway? The image stinks when shown through the wrong lens. Within the next ten years, we will see the closing of multiplex theaters, even in big cities, up the wazoo. And deservedly so.
    I love my 1080P blue ray home theater.

  • John J. Fink | May 13, 2013 5:14 PM

    This is not always correct - there are multiple systems. The Real D XL projects the same image on top of itself to increase light output, those should be slid over for 2D presentations, but I've seen theaters - I'll out Starplex for screwing that one up last time - that don't. (And staff that has no idea when you complain what you're talking about).

    Secondly and more troubling (I'll out AMC for this) is the Sony 4K system - Regal and Alamo flip up the polarizers and the image is very good when presented correctly (despite appearing as a "double image" - I've never had any issues when the polarizers are taken off). AMC doesn't take those off and its shameful - the image is passable but it does look darker than it should with slight color distortion (it's akin to wearing lighter sunglasses - sure no one complains because no one knows how it really should look - and I've had AMC managers tell me "it's no big deal, the movie will play fine"). Now it should be noted not all AMC locations use Sony 4 projection and the other problem is on giant screens (a manager confessed this to me too) that the image is slightly darker than it should look. There are so many unresolved issues with digital, it's not fool proof, but there are also exhibitors that on the whole do a good job. Regal to their credit (at least where I'm based) does a good job on the projection side of things.

  • Ryan | May 8, 2013 11:02 AM

    Yep. I'm a bit shocked that this article would attribute the dimness of the picture to the projectionist. By now it's a commonly held fact that most multiplexes don't take off the 3D lens during 2D screenings and it's that lens that is causing the dimness. This isn't to downplay the importance of quality projectionists but if you need strong arguments to support your thesis, this ain't it.

  • Erik McClanahan | May 7, 2013 6:15 PM

    Spot on Steven. And frankly I hope big chain multiplexes do close down, so the good theaters that give a damn can thrive. It's insulting when these idiot executives think DCP is a fail safe system that doesn't require an intelligent, well-trained projectionist. Theaters that care about their customers' experience at the movies, and smartly program screenings that make people leave the house, amongst other things, will survive.

  • Rodney | May 7, 2013 2:22 PMReply

    Can anyone point to a time when film projection quality in the U.S. was objectively good across the board? For instance, if someone went to a multiplex or average theater in 1980, was the projection quality really better than it is now? Was a union projectionist a guarantee of a quality presentation? I ask this without a hint of irony.

  • Scott Renshaw | May 7, 2013 6:08 PM

    Can't speak to 1980, but as someone who worked at a theater in 1984, the answer is: nothing's ever a "guarantee," but it was a hell of a lot better. The more relevant point is this: Problems happen. When you have someone in the projection booth who knows what the hell he's doing, the problem is small, rather than large.

  • Amy | May 7, 2013 1:58 PMReply

    Wholeheartedly agree on the drab and dull quality of many theatrical projections these days. Sadly, most "viewers" aren't in the movie theatre to do much other than get out of the house or to be able to say that they went to the latest blockbuster. I don't think this is anything new. What's happened is that the theaters have finally recognized how oblivious most of their customers are and are taking full, union-busting advantage of it. The big theatres make a lot of their money through concession sales more than ticket sales (wish I had a cite for this but I think this is largely how cruise ships operate too!!)

    It's not just the big theatres that are at fault here. I have seen some abysmal projections at some small independently owned screening rooms in the last few years. You would think that those folks would care deeply about the quality of the projected image, but maybe they just don't know any better. (Black levels? What are those?) I've said my piece at those places and when/if it doesn't change, I find another place to go. Fortunately, I can usually find another screening room where the image quality is consistently good.

    If the few people who do notice the poor projections consistently a) complain publicly b) ask for their money back, it might help. I was at a showing of "Looper" some months back; the top and bottom edges of the image were completely out of focus. After 10 minutes I went out and asked for my money back; the candy counter clerk (who was also apparently the projectionist, surprise) offered to fix the problem and fix it she did. So I stayed for the rest of the movie. This was a small independent theatre, though. I wound up walking out of the "Raiders" restoration projected on an IMAX screen at a big-box theatre (the worst projection I have ever seen, bar none) and did NOT ask for my money back - shame on me.

    For the most part these days, I'm going to get a better picture on VUDU via my 22" Vizio at home than I will at the theatre. I was fortunate enough to see the 4K restoration of "Lawrence of Arabia" in the theatre last fall - now that was worth a trip out. But I've learned over the last few years in particular that I might as well save the gas and ticket money and buy the Blu-Ray or get the movie on demand. I'm glad that VOD distribution for small indie movies is not too bad and seems to be getting better.

  • Brian W. | May 7, 2013 12:41 PMReply

    I have noticed lately a lot of midnight movies starting at 10, but one of the other things I noticed that tipped me off that things were going digital was the actual start times of the movies. In many cases, there are multiple screenings of a huge midnight movie, and for a while, they used to start at 12:01, 12:02 and then 12:07, 12:08, etc. because the theater would have two prints, and they could be looped, but on a 6 or 7 minute delay. Now with digital, you can have movies start at 12:01, 12:02, 12:03, 12:04, all back to back. It's a miniscule thing, but something I picked up on. Correct me if I'm interpreting this wrong.

  • Dylan | May 7, 2013 11:35 PM

    Brian- not quite. Generally, when interlocking (using one print on two projectors), there would be roughly a minute delay between each projector starting. So print #1 would be 12:01 and 12:02. There was no reason not to start another at 12:03 except for either wanting to avoid a crush of people in the lobby when the show ends and 7-8 theaters spit out one after the other, or to give the projectionist time to get to the next theater to start it (interlocking is a slightly delicate operation, and there's plenty of room for things to go wrong- I learned that starting a print of Star Wars Episode III interlocked over ten projectors).

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