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Projection woes: The follow-up

Posted by Ty Burr  May 23, 2011 04:31 PM

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It's gratifying to see my Sunday P1 article on the multiplex chains' digital-projection shell game get a reaction of healthy outrage from readers, commenters, and the webcloud. The issue is very simply that consumers -- you can call us moviegoers -- are paying for a base level of film projection quality that we're not even close to getting and that the top dogs at AMC, Regal, and National Amusements truly do not care so long as we keep buying the tubs of popcorn and vats of soda that keep them in the black.

Some readers have asked me if there's any way to find out ahead of time whether they're going into a theater using one of the transgressive Sony 4Ks as opposed to a 35mm print or one of the other digital projectors, like a Christie, Barco, or NEC. It's a good question, and the answer is that your local multiplex wants to confuse you as much as possible. You can tell you're buying a ticket for a digital print by looking at the marquee -- it should have a "D" or "Digital" after the title -- but the marquee won't tell you what theater the movie's playing in, let alone what kind of projector they're using. And I can pretty much guarantee that the kid punching the ticket machine has no idea. Update: As Phoenix writer Brett Michel informs me, the self-service ticket kiosks in the lobby list the theater nuimber along with the film's title. That should be your first stop.

If the movie's playing in the multiplex's biggest theater, it's a good bet the projector's not a Sony but one of the others. Why? Because Sony digital projectors can only throw a beam of light big enough to effectively illuminate up to a 44-foot screen width, or so AMC's Dan Huerta told me. Screens larger than that have to go with a Christie, as in Theater 14 at the Loews Boston Common, or a Barco, like Theaters 12 and 13 at the Regal Fenway.

That doesn't necessarily mean you're out of the woods as far as errant 3D lens elements left in place during 2D screenings. I've heard that while the 3D device used with the Christie 4K projector is extremely easy to swing out of the way -- no double-secret passwords or "Mission Impossible" countdown clocks like with the Sonys -- the guys in the projection booth STILL aren't taking the time to make the adjustment. Which explains why last week's screening of "The Tree of Life" in Theater 14 at the Common didn't look 100%, even before the pre-show slide projector accidentally went on halfway through the movie. (You see what we're up against here?)

Just for the record, the Boston Common uses Sony 4Ks in Theaters 1, 4, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 15, 16, and 18. Christies are in 2 and 14, There's a Christie in 14, a special Texas Instruments DLP projector in the "IMAX" theater, #2, and there's 35mm everywhere else. But the whole place is slated to go digital by midsummer, and it'll be mostly Sonys. For what it's worth, I've heard that the one theater in the place that will only show 2D films and thus not have an issue with the 3D lens (because it'll never be put in place) is Theater 16. Not coincidentally, that's where they'll be having most of the screenings for critics.

At the Regal Fenway, there are Sonys in Theaters 1, 3, 5, and 7, Barco 4Ks in 12 and 13, an NEC 4K in Theater 10, and the rest are 35mm.

One thing my article didn't really deal with for space and focus reasons is the projector bulb issue. This affects both 35mm projectors and digital: Theater managers scrimping on expenses by either lowering the intensity of the bulb or leaving it in long past its optimal lifespan. If you're watching a movie and the image is flickering -- and it's not a campfire scene -- that's a projector bulb on its last legs. I'm hearing from a lot of readers about frustratingly low-wattage imagery in many different kinds of theaters, and it's obvious this isn't an isolated phenomenon.

So what can we consumers do? Aside from staying home, and as someone who still cherishes the communal experience of a big-screen movie (or its Aristotelian ideal), I'm not accepting that as an option just yet. But a lot of readers have asked what the best approach to dealing with theater management might be when the presentation isn't up to snuff -- when the basic criteria of proper illumination, focus, framing and sound clarity aren't met. You can sit there, like most people seem to, or you can embark on the arduous trek to find an usher who will radio a manager who will call the projectionist who will maybe check out what's happening while you go back to the theater and wait, often in vain, for the situation to be improved.

If it isn't improved and you're less than a half hour into the film, you can go ask for your money back. At this point, the theater management will try to mollify you by giving you free passes for another movie. That's fine for them, since it guarantees you'll come back and eat more concession junk food, which is the only place the theater makes a profit. Don't give it to them. If the projection really has been substandard, insist loudly and at length on getting your money fully refunded, and take it as high up the tree as you can. Not exactly how you want to spend your Saturday night, but the truth is that the people who run the movie chains are counting on our passive acceptance, and the only way it will ever change is if we actively push back.

(If you feel like dropping them a line, follow the links for Customer Service contact information for AMC, Regal, and National Amusements.)

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.

Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.

Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.

Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.

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