The business of projecting movies has simplified a lot with digital projection.
Compared to film, it’s much more manageable at a small scale, requiring less manpower and freeing up money and resources for the front of house.
Gratifyingly this is evidenced by the number of fantastic boutique cinemas around, usually with multiple screens. (In the 1990s a cinema with more than one screen was a multiplex – so I’m very glad that arthouse multiplexes are the norm today.)
But let’s not rest on our laurels just yet… There are some fundamentals of the movie going experience that aren’t about the movie.
Many of these new cinemas are aiming for the same 30+ professional crowd with sophisticated tastes and disposable incomes. Plush seating and stylish interior design are often more appreciated than the basic requirements of a good cinematic presentation. But requirements they are.
Here are my Top Five bugbears with cinemas I’ve been to in NZ:
There is a very highly regarded cinema in Wellington that installed two new boutique theaters with lit seat numbers in the arms of all the chairs. The lighting makes it easy to find your seat, but once the film has started it is time to turn them off (or at least down). Unfortunately not at The Embassy.
Their “delux” theatres‘ seat lighting constantly shines in the corner of your eye while you’re watching a film. For glasses wearers, the lights reflect back in your lenses. Putting a coat or a bag over the lighting helps, but please, just turn them off.
This is not safety lighting by the way. It’s not the obligatory Fire Exit signs which also leak onto the screen. I imagine there are laws requiring that kind of thing, unfortunately.
Timing of House Lights
Lots of cinemas don’t dim the house lighting for trailers/previews before the film. I don’t care what they do during the commercials, but trailers for me are an artform and part of the whole cinema experience. I want to see them as they are intended – in a darkened room.
Similarly for end credits, I want to have the choice to see the credits to the end, including any post-credits stingers. Please don’t bring the house lights up just because the picture has finished. Wait until the film has finished.
It’s incredible how audiences are prepared to pay extra for appalling presentation at some smaller cinemas.
The first generation of digital projectors were on the whole expensive and lousy. Low contrast ratios, low resolution and low brightness. If you got a really expensive one, they could give fantastic crisp, bright images, but many of the first boutique cinemas didn’t do that.
Even today small cinemas will install the same projectors used to project sports at bars. The ones where the image splits into RGB layers when you turn your head, where the framerate is fixed at 25 or 30fps, where the image vignettes towards the edges and the colours separate.
Cinema is not sports. Image fidelity is critical, so a good projector is also critical.
One South Island cinema’s “den” had possibly the worst projection I’ve ever seen. Shadows were so dark that any black details were crushed, and the image was so soft that all other fine detail was basically a smudge. It seemed the projector was at the limit of its throw. (And the sound was basically a home stereo, certainly no 5.1 in this place.)
Needless to say, focus is also pretty important. Just because digital projection can be a push-button-walk-away type of deal, doesn’t mean the projectionist doesn’t need to do a little QA on the picture going out onto the screen. There’s a reason there are certificates, logos and so forth played in the seconds before the film starts – it gives the projectionist a chance to adjust focus, racking and curtains without spoiling the picture.
Audio Balance and Loudness
Small screens don’t necessarily mean small sound. A well-configured sound system in a small theater can be intense and immediate – the prevalence of home theater systems rivalling most small cinemas is testament to that.
But note my use of “well-configured”. The Dolby and THX certifications which were trumpeted on new cinema builds 15 years ago still apply today. But again it’s the small cinemas which often skimp on this. Speakers must be arranged and configured according to the room and the building.
Most trailers come with stereo soundtracks, or big studio trailers with DTS. In many cases this is different to the sound format of the main feature presentation. This means the Dolby decoder, or whatever hardware is used by the theatre, needs to switch between the appropriate speaker configurations when the format changes, either manually or automatically. Too often this doesn’t happen.
If you see a trailer where the dialogue is crisp and clear in the centre channel, but everything else that should be surround audio sounds quiet or distant, this is why.
If you see a trailer with all sub-bass and music, but the dialogue is muddy and buried, this is why.
Even during the feature presentation, I’ve heard films screened without a working sub. I’ve heard films screened where the centre channel isn’t working and the dialogue is pushed out to the periphery.
I’ve heard plenty of big films screened without any surround channels on at all.
I’ve heard screenings where the entire film is just too quiet – because the projectionist has the volume set to -6 dB because “that’s what she projects everything at”. If it were me, and I stepped out of my booth, and I listened to the movie, and if it sounded too quiet, I might consider making it louder.
…though sometimes that just isn’t possible because the theatre isn’t adequately insulated to prevent the sounds of alien warfare leaking into the Maggie Smith comedy in the next room. Good sound needs containing.
The quality of the material that makes up the screen itself is often overlooked.
Installations of IMAX screens like the new one at the BFI Southbank in London are rightly publicised as major technical operations. But smaller screens also need a lot of care and attention.
Tears in the fabric can be costly to repair, but repair them they must. One very recent addition to Wellington’s screen scene was displaying a rip on its main screen within a week of opening.
Some small screens inexplicably come with a fine grid marked out on them, like pixels. Perhaps these are for calibration, or a by-product of the manufacturing process – clearly it isn’t something a cinema owner can fix, but really is it so hard to not put unnecessary marks all over the image area of a screen?
This article was partly inspired by this blog post from 2007. Six years later and these things are as important as ever: