Movies are meant to be seen in theaters, with darkness on all sides and a bright screen in front, with speakers creating a cocoon of sound, with fellow audience members heightening tension and amplifying laughs. And despite my recent lament about the shoddy way too many theaters seem content to display the movies they’re showing to an extent that were it not for professional obligations, I would avoid theaters entirely, I still believe in the theatrical experience.
Even in these dark days, the theatrical experience can still be revelatory. Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” for instance, was a movie made to be seen in cinemas, its crystal clear images blown up to the biggest size possible, its bone-rattling bombing runs inspiring involuntary flinches of terror. “Blade Runner 2049,” hitting theaters this weekend, is another example of a movie that needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible, where its stunning vistas and complicated sound design can be seen and heard most effectively.
But making sure that experience is good for everyone can be tricky. Warner Bros domestic distribution president Jeff Goldstein emphasized that when I asked him about the challenges involved with showing “Dunkirk,” a film distributed in six different projection formats, including actual celluloid in 70mm, which is relatively rare but allows the filmmaker to capture more detail in each frame.
“So, the population of film projectors is really low. Most of those projectors have been taken out of theaters and replaced with digital equipment, either 2K, 4K or better equipment. The niche locations that have film are few and far between. So what was interesting, just from an operational point of view, was to figure out how to do this,” Goldstein said. Theater operators, perhaps recognizing the opportunity “Dunkirk” presented to get casual filmgoers back in theaters, stepped up to the challenge.
“I have to say that exhibition embraced Chris and Warner Brothers in a really proactive and special way and said, ‘Okay, tell us how to do it. We don’t have projectionists anymore. … In many cases, we don’t have equipment or if we have equipment … we don’t know how to operate it and, quite frankly, it needs maintenance,'” Goldstein said. “It’s all sorts of different issues that were involved, and we figured out logistically and operationally how you get in there and bring all the equipment up to speed, and then how do you operate it. So we provided projectionists in a lot of locations. We help train projectionists, and we used outside vendors who specialize in this very narrow field.”
Goldstein repeatedly highlighted the importance to Warner Bros of showing “Dunkirk” in the way that best shows off Nolan’s vision as a filmmaker — a key concern for studios who remain committed to theatrical distribution even as streaming increases in prominence. Consider the case of Amazon, a studio that, in theory, has the infrastructure and the customer base in place to skip theaters entirely and stream straight to homes. Contra Netflix — whose executives openly sneer at theatrical exhibition — Amazon has stepped up their distribution efforts. This has a great deal of appeal to the people behind the cameras.
“Filmmakers want to go where they feel their work is respected and where a company has the resources to deliver on their vision,” Christine Vachon, the founder of Killer Films, told Variety when the industry mag covered Amazon’s increased efforts at distribution. “Amazon is delivering on all counts.”
But getting movies into theaters is only half the battle: You have to make the experience worthwhile for audiences. As Goldstein put it, “It’s one thing to advertise a show time and have a patron go to a theater — you want to make sure that they’re seeing the perfect version every single time that movie’s shown.”
Enter the team at IMAX, which has emerged as the gold standard in exhibition over the past decade or two. I’ll admit to having been skeptical about IMAX’s push into multiplexes — in large part because the screens are smaller than those we grew used to at museums — but over the past few years, IMAX has been the only format in which I’ve yet to have a bad experience. In addition to properly training theater workers and ensuring that the air quality in a screening room does not degrade the equipment, IMAX focuses on important-yet-oft-ignored technical matters such as bulb brightness.
If something goes wrong at a theater, IMAX employees can fix it almost immediately because the company literally has a command center that monitors the quality of projection in real time.
“All of our systems are connected to our INOC — our IMAX Network Operations Center — and they’re wired to that center through the Internet,” said Colin Smyth, IMAX’s senior vice president of global theater services. “So for example, if a system calibration failed in a theater in China … we would take action on that. And we would contact the theater and perhaps remotely log in to find out why it failed and what we need to do to make sure that the system is being properly calibrated and that projectors are in alignment and the light output is, you know, right [and] it meets the standard and so on.”
The goal is to ensure that every audience member enjoys the same experience no matter where in the world he or she is — a matter of some importance to the filmmakers who have come to rely on the IMAX brand.
“When you look at a filmmaker like Christopher Nolan — I think I can, I don’t want to put words in his mouth — but you know we can guarantee filmmakers of that caliber, like J.J. Abrams, your Zack Snyders, they’re not creating movies for you to watch them on a mobile phone or even a laptop. They are, we like to say, they dream in IMAX. They want to see their vision come to life in the biggest way possible,” an IMAX spokesperson said.
It is, perhaps, unrealistic to expect every single movie screen in America to be monitored in real time 24/7/365, as IMAX does. But if you want audiences to share the dream in a theater, as the original dreamer intended, then ensuring the highest-quality theatrical experience possible needs to be a bigger priority for everyone in the movie industry.