By Christopher Campbell | Spout May 23, 2011 at 10:36AM
First "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" under-performs even with 3D prices and now this. Is it Roger Ebert's birthday? Today's TrendSpouting deals with an ongoing problem with the theater industry.
The big story in movie bloggery today is the revelation that some movie theaters are failing to project their films correctly. And because it relates to 3D movies, it's especially interesting to the mostly 3D-hating blogosphere. It's also enough of a stunner to get Deadline.com to refer to it as "Lens-Gate." But I don't know why everyone is so shocked. Projection levels have been going downhill for years. Unionized (aka professionally trained) projectionists have been phased out over the past decade as assistant managers and young part-timers have been stuck with their duties. Digital technology seemed like a godsend, staff-wise, as it seemed to be a way to further cut hours since no prints had to be built up, struck-down, threaded, etc. Just a button has to be pushed, or so they think.
And for the most part the execs are quite happy because it all comes down to the single manager (instead of 3-4 at a time) to handle the projection and the money and whatever other problems are happening. Now, I used to be a cinema manager, for many years, but while I haven't worked in a multiplex since digital projection came in, I was in the industry long enough to know where the corporate concerns are. Not on making sure the picture is satisfactory, let along perfect. Not in monitoring the floor and staff to be certain all patrons are happy. Not in anything more than corralling the people and collecting their payment. I hate to be cynical, but I've worked with some idiots in my day, and I've met few high-up theater workers (from district managers up) who even enjoy going to the movies themselves.
Sure, there are probably some theater owners who give a damn, and possibly some employees who are like I was and actually want things to go well, but it's sadly a business that has been doomed for a long time. And audiences will rarely understand or notice the projection quality -- or, like they do with bad framing and incorrect lenses, they think it's the filmmakers' fault. Also, this highly circulated Boston Globe article, which I definitely recommend, is likely to just scare more moviegoers out of the cinema in general rather than educating them and sparking a change. It makes me mad, it makes me sad, but this is how it goes. Cinemas will continue to lose the audience, and respond by cutting more staff and increasing more concession prices to make it up. Eventually they'll die out, or maybe they can get a bailout because movies are such an important American pastime.
Anyway, I could probably rant and complain and argue and defend the matter til the cows come home (or til pigs fly, which is more like when the theater industry will get it together), but for now I'll try to respond to some of the responses heard round the film blog water cooler today.
Here's the crazy thing about the general shoulder shrugging Burr got when he asked movie theater chains about this problem: it's in their best interest to give their customers the finest experience they can possibly have. These companies are under assault from all sides. Movie studios are considering shortened video on demand windows. Customers have better home theaters. The folks who do buy tickets spend the entire movie talking and texting on their cell phones. The quality of the theatrical experience should be the exhibitors' number one priority; if I want to watch a crummy looking version of a movie in depressing surroundings, I can wait a few months and watch it at home on my tiny SD television. If I'm going to get a similarly frustrating experience for fifteen bucks, why pay? I'm a dim guy, but I'm not that stupid.
The industry that should be paying attention to this news, really, is the one making the movies. Hollywood has acted for decades now like they don't need the cinemas, and for a while the DVD sales made it seem like maybe they didn't. But most big movies do need theatrical releases and for that to keep up the big studios need to first be more dedicated to their own movies being presented better. This comes down to many factors in addition to just how it's projected. It's also about how theaters treat and deal with the movie consumer.
The reason theaters aren't removing the lenses is a simple one: it costs money. Trained, experienced protectionists are the ones who should be making the swap and unfortunately theater managers have been reducing their protectionist staff these days to save money. Since more and more movie theaters are abandoning film projection and going all digital, the workload and experience level involved in projecting a movie is considerably lighter. Unless you're projecting 2-D material on a 3-D equipped projector, that is, in which case firing your best people is coming back to bite you in the ass.
The staffing issue is a huge deal, and this has nothing to do with my employment in the industry, which I fortunately quit when I did (my old theaters are now running on staff cuts I couldn't have imagined in my worst nightmares). You've got to spend money to make money, and that's particularly true with employment. The better the pay, the better the benefits, the better the incentives, the better everyone does their job and ends up making the customer happy. I didn't go to business school, but I ran theater operations long enough to know that.
Your best bet as a moviegoer, other than simply staying home and watching Netflix, is to actively complain, a strikingly rare occurrence. " Look back at the projection booth," advises the paper. "If you see two beams of light, one stacked on top of the other, that's a Sony with the 3-D lens still in place." And a good reason to ask for a refund on your ticket.
If you can even find a manager, great, but chances are especially after the last show they're sitting in an office slaving over all the money. Good luck with the physical, on-site complaining, something most humans hate doing directly anyway.
The ones who get hurt? The audience. Us. So what can we do about it? The only thing we have in our power: complain. If your movie seems like it’s too dark, tell the manager you want your money back. Tell them you won’t come back to the theater until they learn to project their movies correctly. You don’t want a free pass, you won’t buy their concessions, you’ll bad mouth them to everyone who will listen.
Making a big scene is probably the best anyone can do, as in wrangling other patrons after the show. This does occasionally happen and I can assure you that it gets managers listening. The sad thing is, there's often no way for that manager to even give a refund if the money is in the safe. And now even those "shut 'em up" freebie passes are often harder to come by. It's often not up to the guys on site anyway. Best thing today actually seems to be Tweeting SPECIFIC complaints about SPECIFIC locations. If you have a lot of followers that will get the theater owners' attention. If you don't, tweet at someone like Ebert or someone associated with the film. They'll likely respond and retweet. I've actually had better luck tweeting consumer-related complaints, including cinema projection issues, than anything in person. The Internet is a powerful weapon these days.
Consumers have to shoulder some of the blame because they may not notice or even care. Also, do you really want to get out of your seat, track down the manager, and stop the movie so they can adjust the lens? The better solution is to sit through the movie and then afterwards complain to the manager about the issue. They’ll most likely give you a free pass in order to shut you up. But if they have to give out enough of those passes because every screening has them getting bothered by unhappy patrons, it might just make them change their ways. Or they’ll just jack up prices at the concession stand because that’s the only thing they’re good at.
Ah, cynicism like my own. Anyone remember those complaint-based remote controls Regal initiated a few years ago? They didn't work, probably because staffing issues caused too long a wait to even make those worthwhile anyway. Again, the only way to help is to have enough staff to monitor the auditoriums themselves, but that's not happening. And speaking of concessions, the other day I saw another means for Regal to cut costs: they've got all these self-serve drink machines now. Well, execs, one of these days the "player piano" model is going to fail you, or take over the world, whichever kind of sci-fi you believe in. Good job.
So if you see that you're getting "shafted," complain to the manager and ask for it to be fixed or your money back. Or patronize a smaller movie house instead of the multiplex, where there's less of a cattle call mentality towards the patrons.
I have to point out that independent houses are often worse about this sort of thing than the big guys. They have less overhead but they also are often cheaper -- I mean stingy, that is. If you want proof, check out one of the few indie cinemas left in Brooklyn, NY. They're almost all pretty terrible.
You'd think the exhibition industry would be especially interested in keeping its patrons happy as there hasn't been much to cheer about so far this year, as the box office data has shown for months. Our guess is that will change as this report gets around.
Sadly, I don't see the industry doing any more on this than issuing memos to theaters and staff and then hoping it's worked out. But memos aren't really incentives, nor are they additional staff. Oh well.
An article about the crappy light levels in 2D movies projected at AMC, National Amusements and Regal cinemas has been posted by the Boston Globe's Ty Burr. It's appalling, of course, and yet comforting that Burr came to the same conclusions that I posted on 9.21.10.
And perhaps another article will be written in another 8 months, and so on until we're all just happily plugged into our "Matrix"-like pods and not experiencing anything communally anyway. Can you tell I'm frustrated by this news yet?
One final note, because I'm sure I am coming off as too bitter or otherwise too pessimistic. I spent ten years in the industry and watched it descend horribly. I have stories you wouldn't believe. I didn't leave because of the pay -- in fact I've never earned as much as when I was a theater MCO (manager of concessions operations). It was just too hard to care so much about a business when most of my peers, co-workers and superiors failed to.
However, none of us would like to see the cinemas go away completely, so hopefully there is something that will happen. Someway that the industry will hit rock bottom and turn around. Then again, I'm a born cynic who just as much assumes this latest problem is about an industry trying to get us to believe the 2D version is inferior so the next time we pay for the higher-priced 3D showing. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say.