The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If Hollywood wants a scapegoat for poor ticket sales, blame movie theaters

Audience members wear 3-D glasses while watching a movie at the Tennessee Aquarium Imax theater in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Jan. 31. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)
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Last week, I argued that Hollywood’s complaints about Rotten Tomatoes are wildly off base: There’s little evidence to suggest that the review-aggregating site has moved the needle in terms of attendance and, in certain regards, reviews have actually grown more positive in recent years, rendering all such complaints moot. The issue seems to be less about negative reviews and more about audience boredom with the offerings. Tent poles, alas, are no longer holding the roof up over Hollywood’s head.

And yet, one can imagine Hollywood executives dropping to their knees like a Blues Brother caught in Carrie Fisher’s crosshairs screaming, “There was a terrible flood! Locusts! It’s not my fault!” when confronted with this radical bit of common sense. So if the suits are bound and determined to blame someone else for their problems — and, really, who among us isn’t interested in blaming someone else for our problems? — Hollywood might shift its focus from critics to exhibitors.

Once upon a time, going to a cinema was the best way to experience seeing a film. The picture quality was unparalleled; the audio couldn’t be topped. Ensconced in a darkened room with a giant screen dominating your vision, you were immersed in the image, drowned in the sound.

This is, simply put, not the case any longer. At the risk of resorting to anecdata, I’d like to relate a couple of stories and how they tie into larger exhibition issues.

Story the first: At the press screening for “It,” the image was so dark that I could barely make out the action on-screen, especially during scenes that take place either at night or in sewers. (Spoiler: That’s a large portion of the film.) Additionally, the little lights in the theater illuminating the pathways one must follow in the event of an emergency were so bright that they literally threw a shadow of the seat backs in front of them onto the screen.

With Hulu Live TV currently in beta and other streaming services becoming more affordable, it may be time to cancel your cable service. (Video: Jhaan Elker, Osman Malik/The Washington Post)

Leaving aside the shade on the screen, which I have to do for my own sanity, the darkness of the image is an easily fixable problem that very few exhibitors seem interested in fixing: projectors with 3-D filters on the lens for non-3-D films. When you leave the 3-D filter on the lens while showing a non-3-D movie, it dramatically decreases the brightness of the picture. This has been a problem for years now — here’s Ty Burr explaining the technical reasons why this is an issue way back in 2011; here’s Vadim Rizov revisiting the problem in 2015; here’s Dennis Cozzalio complaining about a darkened screening of “mother!” just this past weekend — and no one in the industry seems to care.

Story the second: Over the past six months, I have twice paid extra to watch a movie on a premium, large-format screen. The first time was for “Ghost in the Shell,” which was, shockingly, displayed in the wrong aspect ratio. (Depending on the film, a projector needs to be tinkered with to show the film in its proper ratio, generally either 1.85:1 or 2.39:1.) Subtitles were often invisible, beneath the screen; a portion of the image was displayed on the ceiling. The problem was obvious and relatively easily solved.

And yet, no employee in the theater was able to fix the problem — perhaps unsurprising, given the lack of properly trained projectionists working for theaters nowadays. It was maddening. With this experience in mind during my next trip to this particular screen, a showing of “Atomic Blonde,” I paid attention to the previews and, what do you know, it was being projected in the wrong aspect ratio again. Fortunately this time an employee was able to fix the problem — but when he did, I noticed there were two tiny dead spots in the projector, static holes in the picture drawing your eye whenever the camera moved. Glad I paid extra for the privilege.

On top of screen-by-screen mistakes, you have run-of-the-mill problems that every major chain seems to have decided are acceptable. Exhibitors have apparently given up on properly masking screens — that is, changing the shape of the screen to fit the aspect ratio being projected so as to avoid a letterbox effect one gets from a TV. Which brings me to: story the third. I saw “Dunkirk” in 70-millimeter film on the Thursday it opened and, while I appreciate the theater for projecting actual film for once and director Christopher Nolan making the effort to shoot on actual film, one has to wonder why they bothered when no one at the theater could be bothered to mask the screen correctly. Little bits of distracting gray-white space hung about around the image.

It has gotten to the point that, were I not literally writing about movies for money, I would never go to theaters anymore. Why would I go watch a muddy picture on a screen showing a dimmed image surrounded by grayish-letterboxed rectangles when I can stay at home in the darkness of my basement and watch a movie in the appropriate brightness on my 60-inch HD plasma a few months after its initial theatrical release? A Blu-ray is often cheaper than a theater ticket anyway, radically so once concessions are taken into account. To say nothing of the price differential for an On Demand rental. If you don’t need to see something upon its initial release, why would you even bother going to theaters?

No wonder AMC stock is down radically. If exhibitors can’t be bothered to exhibit films properly, what, exactly, is their raison d’etre?