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Tech Advances Haven’t Stamped Out Subpar Pictures at the Multiplex

Even though digital projection seems to promise more uniform standards for exhibitors, there are still plenty of ways for your picture to get screwed up once it reaches the multiplex. Last year, there was a controversy over a story in the Boston Globe criticizing some exhibitors' practice of leaving polarizing filters for 3D projection in place even when 2D movies were being shown, dramatically reducing the brightness of the image on screen for no good reason. "If they're doing this for a big screening, I can't imagine what they do for regular customers." said director Peter Farrelly of a too-dim screening of his film Hall Pass. "That's no way to see a movie."

Over the weekend, film archivist Robert Harris (probably best known for his work on restorations of classic film titles including Lawrence of Arabia and Vertigo), weighed in at the popular Home Theater Forum message boards on reports of poor image quality during recent special-event screenings of Casablanca. The ensuing discussion included pictures snapped from inside theaters screening the film that seemed to indicate the black-and-white cinematography was no longer black-and-white, stained instead with magenta and green on opposite sides of the picture. A podcast called The Cinementals confirmed the problems weren't limited to just one or two theaters, indicating issues with picture quality and other technical glitches — blank screens, no sound, spots of color on Ingrid Bergman's face, etc. — at multiple theaters on playdates in late March and late April.

One of the reasons the technical issues were disappointing is that cinephiles who know that Casablanca recently got a solid 4K restoration may well have been expecting to see a proper screening — maybe even at 4K — from a DCP.* Instead, the film was delivered to theaters in HD via National CineMedia's digital satellite network — the same mechanism that's used to deliver pre-show advertisements to theaters. If they had known they were going to be looking at a picture with Blu-ray resolution, discerning customers might have stayed at home to watch Casablanca on a smaller screen, but one whose presentation quality they could control and count on.

The number of ways content can be projected digitally is only continuing to multiply. The Hobbit will reportedly be in theaters in six different versions (2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D, each running at both 24fps and 48fps). As studios get out of the business of 35mm prints, repertory theaters are more and more often resorting to screening from Blu-ray Disc or, worse, DVD. (Imagine what that looks like on a 50-foot screen.) There seems to be a presumption that audience members either don't notice the step down in quality, or don't mind it. And filmmakers everywhere should consider that a dangerous attitude, especially at a time when exhibitors should be learning how to offer the best possible picture quality in a digital setting, not just an image that seems to be "good enough" for any given audience. To help ticket-buyers understand what they're seeing, maybe NATO, the MPAA, or someone else needs to come up with rules for describing how a film is being screened — from an HD source, from 2K or 4K DCPs, 24fps, 48fps, whatever.

The quest for quality in the multiplex reminds me of those stories of Martin Scorsese in the 1980s, holding up a light meter in a darkened theater to measure the degree to which theaters were being cheap by turning down their projection bulbs. (Roger Ebert says Scorsese once told him that the light levels are generally correct in New York City and Los Angeles because filmmakers who see movies in those cities will actually make a stink. Meanwhile, civilian audiences don't know what they're missing.) As an industry, we should be beyond that by now.

* To be fair, having a DCP in hand is no guarantee that the show will go on as scheduled. According to tweets from film writers Eric Kohn and Lisa Schwarzbaum, a press screening of The Avengers was delayed for hours last week after the movie file was accidentally deleted from a cinema server beforehand. Welcome to the future of filmgoing!

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