Yesterday’s Boston Globe had a frankly horrifying piece from film critic by Ty Burr about the impact of 3D projectors on 2D projection in Boston. Burr found that 8 of the 19 screens at a local AMC multiplex on a mid-April evening were presenting “gloomy, underlit images.” He eventually discovered the culprit was a particular brand of projector — a 4K digital model by Sony — that requires an external lens adapter to exhibit 3D films. If you leave that 3D lens on during 2D movies, as Burr found was the habit in certain Boston theaters, the result is an image that, according to one expert, can be “85 percent darker than a properly projected film.”
I encourage anyone who regularly visits multiplexes to read Burr’s entire piece. Though he got a few union projectionists to talk anonymously about the problem, he found the multiplexes themselves rather apathetic about the issue. The National Amusements chain claims they’ve had no problems with the Sony 4K, Regal Cinemas responded with a statement claiming their patrons like digital cinema in general, and AMC, the company that prompted Burr’s piece, essentially said they have no corporate policy in place regarding the proper use of these 4K projectors. That means it’s up to your local theater to figure out how to use these machines properly, or to spend the time and money required to switch out the 3D lens when it’s not in use. Looking for a red flag? Next time you’re watching a digitally-projected 2D movie at the multiplex, and the night scenes look extra murky, you might want to consider bringing it to the attention of the management. Burr also recommends you take a look back at the projection booth if you’re suspicious of the image quality. He says “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. If there’s a single beam, it’s either a Sony with the 3-D lens removed or a different brand of digital projector, such as Christie or Barco.”
Perhaps the most disheartening thing about Burr’s piece isn’t the widespread dim image quality — that’s a battle that’s been fought for decades, long before 3D adapters were the problem — but that the total lack of concern on the part of the movie theaters is echoed by the customers he interviewed. Polling a few patrons exiting a movie that was clearly misprojected, Burr found mostly disinterest in the issue. “An older couple leaving the under-illuminated 7:15 ‘Win Win’ showing thought the film looked fine,” he wrote. “Another patron praised its ‘creative lighting.'”
One could argue this is making a three-dimensional mountain out of a two-dimensional molehill. If these customers feel like they got their money’s worth, why complain? Because to not complain is to accept mediocrity. It’s true: it’s tough to know whether a movie is being properly projected. Most of us are seeing the movie for the first time; so how can we tell if it looks right? We put our trust in the theater to protect us. Burr’s article suggests they may need to do more to earn that trust.
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.