Movie Theater Chains Really Can Screw Up Just About Anything

Ever since our minor disaster at our midnight showing of the most recent Harry Potter film, in which the print was burned through at least twice, I have been making a minor effort to try to see as many films projected digitally as possible. I figured, “How could they possibly mess this up? All they have to do is keep the lenses clean and in focus, and hit ‘play.’ Right?”

Wrong. Ty Burr, a reporter for the Boston Globe, has a fascinating article about the current problems with digital projection (seriously, go read it!). Basically, the projector Sony has been offering the theater chains for free (in exchange for running Sony programming before screenings) has a lens that requires not only technically advanced knowledge but also:

James Bond, a Chicago-based projection guru who serves as technical expert for Roger Ebert’s Ebertfest, said issues with the Sonys are more than mechanical. Opening the projector alone involves security clearances and Internet passwords, “and if you don’t do it right, the machine will shut down on you.’’ The result, in his view, is that often the lens change isn’t made and “audiences are getting shortchanged.’’

As a result, the theater chains are just leaving the polarized lenses on the projectors, which results in films appearing 50-85% darker. Right now the chains are saying it’s up to the theater managers to decide, and the managers are giving the suggestion that the decision comes higher up.

Besides not having a lot of the problems that film prints might have (like, I don’t know, burning the print at a midnight showing of Harry Potter!!), they are also cheaper to operate and acquire films for, which potentially could lead the way for more selection at your local cineplex.

As regular theater-goers, it’s our job to get the word out. Luckily, there is a small consolation, because it is easy to tell if they aren’t removing the lens:

…There’s an easy way to tell. If you’re in a theater playing a digital print (the marquee at the ticket booth should have a “D’’ next to the film’s name), look back at the projection booth.

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.

So be on the lookout, and demand to be switched to a different screening if you see it. This is unacceptable.