Yesterday, in the toilets of a West End cinema, I saw some graffiti. It read 'I Love The Pirate Bay'. I can sympathise. I'd understand if anyone at the screenings I'm going to talk about went to Pirate Bay for their next new release, but they won't, and that's part of the problem.
I'm not the most technically minded person. I'm not going to pretend I'm an authority on projection, nor that I know everything about running a cinema, but having been to the movies roughly three times a week for the last thirteen years I believe I'm reasonably secure in saying that I know, broadly, what a film should look like when it is projected, and what the optimal conditions are for said projection. All too often recently - and increasingly as digital has come to dominate - the films haven't looked like that, and the conditions haven't been like that.
I just want to clarify, before we go any further, that I'm not a celluloid purist. I don't hate digital projection (there's a texture to film that I like, and prints MUST remain available to rep cinemas, but when well projected I have no complaints about digital, and indeed the digitally projected restorations of the likes of Badlands, Last Picture Show and The Red Shoes and others have all been wonderful, in some cases revelatory). While the incidence of technical failings (at least in my experience) has massively increased since the dominance of digital projection I don't wish to pretend either that celluloid projection was or is flawless, nor that digital projection is, in and of itself, inherently a problem. The problem is the way it is being approached. The problem, in short, is the end of the projectionist, and of staff and audiences who really care about how a film is presented in addition to the fact that it is presented.
First though, let's talk about the screening room. All I really look for, at the most basic level, is a big, dark, room (though one I've had the misfortune to be in a few times - at a large East London venue - is too big, meaning that the sound echoes, making action movies unbearable). Big isn't usually a problem, dark, on the other hand, is really starting to be an issue. At one central London cinema (I shan't be naming names because I largely go to a single chain, and it would be unfair, as I'm sure the same problems are rife at other multiplexes) I have now entirely sworn off going to Screen 2. I've never seen the mice that others have told me have been in that screen, but I never liked the oddly off centre screen (meaning you have to sit on the aisle to see the centre of the screen properly). Even that wouldn't have made me give up on it, but one recent innovation has: they've started leaving more safety lights on. In this very small screen a total of TEN 'safety' lights are now left on during every screening, along with three brightly lit Emergency Exit signs (I'm not, for the record, suggesting those be turned off). As well as simply being a bad way to show films, this has an additional impact. The screen in this auditorium is approximately 1.85:1, so when 2.35:1 films show in there you get unused space, just as you would on a widescreen TV, but when this screen has a 1.85 film on it, filling the screen, one of the safety lights spills on to the picture itself. I've complained about this twice and nothing has been done, despite the fact that fewer 'safety' lights are left on in this cinema's HUGE Screen 1 auditorium than in the tiny Screen 2.
Another light problem, and one that is especially irksome as more and more films include during or post credits scenes, is the fact that every multiplex screen now seems to set up their house lights to go on the INSTANT a film's end credits begin to roll. Not only does this mean that post credits scenes look shit most of the time, it can also destroy the mood of a film. One cinema that doesn't do this is the Prince Charles in Leicester Place, and I'm so glad that that was where I saw Confessions (well, the second time I saw it), because you need to sit in the dark with that ending for a while. Sometimes you need a moment to extract yourself from the world of the film, and bringing the lights up immediately breaks the illusion without giving you that chance. It also, of course, means that if the film goes up even a minute late (which they still do, frequently), you will often see the house lights come up during a climactic scene.
Then there are the screens themselves. I've not seen many problems here, but one egregious one deserves mentioning. Three months ago, at another central London multiplex, I mentioned that their Screen 1 had a couple of scuffs on one side of the bottom of the screen. Not only has this not been fixed, it has become much, much worse. Now, whenever there is a light coloured scene on screen, there are grey scuff marks visible in patches along the entire length of the screen, and some have become visible further up as well. I'm sure cleaning or replacing screens isn't cheap, and in tight economic times I sympathise, but this just isn't good enough, it mars the films shown in there (the films, one would suspect, that people are most anxious to see), and it just demonstrates a lack of interest in what the film looks like. I shan't be in that screen again until it is fixed.
These issues are pressing and irritating, but more prevalent and more widespread are projection problems. Perhaps the biggest (so much so that it's not so much about having specific examples of when it happens as it is about having examples of when it doesn't) are the darkening issues caused by the fact that 3D lenses are often left on projectors for 2D screenings. I understand that, in some cases, this is because the particular digital projector being used has lenses that are both extremely heavy and difficult to change. In this day and age though, you would think this problem would be easily solved by devoting, say, one in three screens totally to 3D films, and leaving the others to show 2D only: problem solved, no lens changes and no low light levels for 2D screenings.
The worst problem I have ever seen with a 3D lens in a 2D screening was in a screening of We Need to Talk About Kevin at a South London multiplex. Having waited an extra half hour for the film to come up because nobody had actually tested the file in the way they would have a print (another problem that is becoming more and more prevalent) it came up with an odd problem - just off centre, outlined in light, was a little rectangle, brighter on one side than the other. I had never seen anything like this fault before, and after wondering what it could be for a few minutes, glanced back at the projection booth to see if I could tell what was happening. It turned out that this projector had a filter (which I assume was for 3D projection), which I could see was supposed to cover the beam, it had been moved out of position, but I could see that some light was still hitting it, and creating that shape on the screen. I reported and explained the problem, which you would think would be an easy fix - it needed moving about two inches - but fifteen minutes later nothing had been done, so I left. This ignorance of how to, or unwillingness to bother to, fix a simple problem is something that was also reflected much more recently, at a West End screening of The Five Year Engagement.
Quite frequently, ads and trailers will show window boxed (with unused space on all four sides), and the projectionist will then zoom to enlarge the picture and make it fill the screen when the main feature comes up. However, at the Five Year Engagement screening the entire film was shown window boxed. It was never going to completely fill the screen, as it is a 1.85 film and the screen is optimised for 2.35 (and, as is the case with many places now, has no curtains so that the unused space can actually be hidden), and no it's not a great visual spectacle, but I expect a film to be as large as it possibly can be at the cinema. I went down to let the staff know there was an issue, and ask could they please get the projectionist to fix it. Ten minutes later the film (which I was enjoying) was still window boxed, so back down I went and had the same conversation with the other person at the concession stand (sadly the best staffed point in any cinema now). The problem was never corrected, but I stayed to watch the film. At no time was there an attempt (that we could see anyway) to fix the issue, and at no time did a member of staff come in to check the projection in the screen, even after my second trip downstairs.
After the screening ended I spoke to the manager, and discovered the source of the problem. This seven screen central London cinema now employs a grand total of ZERO projectionists. None. Not ONE person on site at this cinema is in fact trained in how to show a film to its best advantage. Why is this acceptable? Having a film projected by someone who doesn't know anything about projection is like putting me - a man with all the physical grace of a bull in a china shop - in a leading role in a production of Swan Lake. The difference, and one that makes me fear for the future of cinema, is that while, were I ever to make my balletic début, people would storm the box office demanding refunds (and therapy), I was the ONLY person who appeared to notice that anything was wrong with that screening, in fact my audience seemed more annoyed that I twice got up and came back than they were that the film wasn't being projected correctly.
This lack of technically trained staff is down to the idea that digital projectors can, because the films don't require assembling, threading, and all the other things that come with celluloid, run themselves, that all you need to do is press a button. This is patently bullshit. The old problems still persist, especially in regards to aspect ratio and making the film fill the screen. When this happened in the days of film I would nip out of the screen, someone would radio the projectionist and the problem would be fixed, often before I was back in my seat. Now if something goes wrong there is nobody in the projection room to try and fix it, and apparently nobody on staff with the knowledge to do so. Are all the audiences in that West End cinema seeing Five Year Engagement at two thirds the size it should be? If so how long has that been happening? Has anyone else complained? If not is it because they don't know better or because they don't care? Certainly cinemas don't show much interest in letting people know how films are meant to look. At multiplexes now I get the impression that films are, at best, a secondary concern; a vehicle to sell overpriced, over large, snacks and over abundant advertising space. I understand that these things keep cinemas running, but if they are the engine then the films are the car, and at the moment that car is dented and spluttering its way to its destination. In this article, because I don't want to go on all day, I've mentioned only a tiny handful of the problems I've observed over the past couple of years, and what really concerns me is that the pace with which I've been gathering these stories has increased almost week by week, as technology advances what we can do with it, in terms of showing films, is DEvolving.
It seems to me that cinemas are now relying on gimmicks to save them. 3D is, sadly, probably here to stay and moving seating (something I will NEVER, NEVER try) has just arrived, while higher frame rates, promising better 3D and greater picture clarity are about to arrive with The Hobbit and the Avatar sequels. But why should any of this matter? Multiplexes are already making a hideous botch job of showing 3D films, how much would you like to bet that screenings of The Hobbit will be presented at the wrong frame rate, thus running at half speed, with nobody trained to fix the projector? It WILL happen, many times, and it shouldn't. It used to be widely recognised that a film was a piece of art, and that there was artistry in the way it was displayed, now it's a supporting act for the sale of Pepsi, and we're surrendering the skills it takes to show it properly, because who gives a fuck? Nothing will change unless we demand it. We have to complain about every problem, we have to demand that problems are fixed, we have to make the argument that showing films remains a technical and an artistic job, and that neither a machine nor a seventeen year old with an afternoon's training can do it properly. We have to shout about this, to cinema staff and to cinema audiences, or that lazy excuse of 'it's only a movie' will kill the joy of going to the cinema.