Box office revenue for 3D has been looking a little flat in recent months.

The fourth Pirates movie sold more tickets in 2D than 3D. This clearly worried Michael Bay and Paramount whose Transformers: Dark of the Moon is about to hit the same markets.

The film’s $195m budget has reportedly been inflated by Bay’s demands on the technology, involving “over 4000 crew” and the most “technically demanding sequences ever shot. And shot in 3D“. Bay says they’ve optimised the grade on 3D prints to improve their brightness, sharpness and contrast.

Now they’re on marketing overdrive to get people to see the 3D version or, better still, IMAX.

Part of this campaign has included a revealing letter to projectionists decrying the “dark dingy” projection that has become a widespread problem in cinemas:

The main reason* is the polarising filters found in 3D projector lenses which cut out a significant amount of the light projected.

How much, though, depends on who you ask…

What’s worse is cinemas are not bothering to swap out these lenses when showing a 2D movie. Consequently every film, whether 2D or 3D, could now be subject to a loss of light.

The same Boston Globe article showed that changing lenses was not straightforward:

Opening the projector alone involves security clearances and Internet passwords, “and if you don’t do it right, the machine will shut down on you.’’

Sony responded that it’s a 20 minute job to change the lens for someone with the “correct expertise”. Although it’s unclear if such experts include the average projectionist, and it’s also unclear why this kind of hardware DRM is even necessary.**

Having been a projectionist myself, this type of requirement would be prohibitively arduous. In the multiplexes, typically one person will operate several projectors simultaneously with the schedule staggered such that there is enough time to physically get from one screen to another in time to reset the projector. In some megaplexes projectors are arranged along a single corridor so you can get there by bicycle. In these situations, adding a 20-minute changeover would be impossible. If schedules have to be adjusted to accommodate this, screenings might be reduced, and revenues would follow.

So it seems there are several factors at play that will be setting the quality of our movie-going experience for the foreseeable future.

  • Hollywood and the multiplexes are still betting heavily on 3D, despite diminishing returns.
  • Multiplexes are operating a rapid turnaround policy to accomodate more screenings and parallel programming of 2D and 3D versions, which means they don’t swap out the lenses.
  • The benefits of digital projection are now revealing their oh-so-predictable downside: DRM paranoia.

It’s a complex issue and it will be interesting to see where it goes.

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* Another reason for the darker images is that theatre owners are keeping their expensive projector bulbs underpowered to extend their working life. Any benefit of this is questionable – or at best negligible – but this tactic certainly isn’t new.