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Fight Back - Please
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Poster     As you might expect, when movie critics watch films for review, they usually do so under optimal circumstances. Los Angeles in particular is full of screening rooms, both on and off studio lots, that are carefully sound-proofed and boast beautifully clean, brand-new, up-to-date screens. Speakers are placed carefully around the room for maximum effect and then are hidden so that they don’t protrude into the viewer’s field of vision. Technicians regularly check the lenses and the reflective quality of the screens so that the images are as close to what the filmmaker desired as they can possibly be.

     Just as importantly, projectionists – almost always union projectionists – are assigned to each screening room. Not to watch over two or three or four projection booths, but to one booth showing one movie. So if a projector slips up, if the sound suddenly goes off, if the image goes out of frame, there’s someone in the booth to fix the problem right away. The system isn’t perfect. There are slip-ups. But you get the picture. Critics certainly get the picture, and with almost no glitches.

     Every summer, I take some time off with my family to visit relatives and friends or just go on vacation somewhere and inevitably pay to go to the movies. Or, during the work year, I’ll end up going to a regular, commercial venue to catch up with a film I didn’t see at a screening.

     Frankly, it’s appalling. I don’t mean just the sloppy, careless projection which leaves the paying customer with about 65 percent of the actual film experience. I mean the bovine passivity displayed by the audience in the face of this commercial contempt.

     Seven out of ten times I go to a regular movie theater, some problem comes up with the projection. Either part of the movie is being projected onto the black matting surrounding the screen, the movie is plainly out of focus, the sound is out of synchronization, the image is out of frame, or – and this one always kills me – the movie is being shown in the wrong aspect ratio because the wrong lens is on the projector.


     I mean, what is it with you people? You’ve usually paid $8.50 or $9 or – in Manhattan - $10 to get into the theater, an outrageous sum that should have the ushers bowing and scraping in gratitude. Instead, you humbly make your way to a seat where you take anything a contemptuous management decides to toss your way.

     This August I jogged the equivalent of a marathon getting out of my seat, hunting down ushers and managers trying to get them to show a movie properly. Over the years, I’ve had some incredible experiences, mostly in my own Los Angeles neighborhood (yes, Hollywood’s backyard). One nearby theater, part of a national chain well known for running crappy cinemas, refused to run the proper, high amount of current through its projector bulbs because they burned out faster that way. So the lesser current and dimmer bulbs saved them whatever – a hundred or two bucks a month - and the movies they showed were always dark and murky, the colors running together and the focus flabby.

     Once, when a deadline forced me to see a movie there, the movie was even more out of focus than usual. I went out and found an usher, told him to inform the projectionist of the problem, and went back to my seat. Five minutes pass, no improvement; ten minutes pass, no improvement. So I go out to the lobby again and there I find the usher together with some of his buddies standing around talking. I ask him what happened and he says, "I went inside to check and it looked OK to me." So much for the customer is always right. Luckily the manager was standing right there and she immediately got on the intercom to the projectionist who did focus what was, eagle-eye junior’s assertion to the contrary notwithstanding, an out-of-focus film.

     But you see, NO ONE ELSE GOT UP TO COMPLAIN. No one ever complains. They just turn filmgoing into a masochistic experience.

     Now here is the capper. Last week, I paid $8.50 at a San Fernando Valley theater to see Simone with about 75 other paying customers.

     Now, about 70 minutes into the film, there is a reel change. Do you understand what a reel is? Movies are shipped on big reels that hold about 2,000 feet of 35 mm film, which, when they are run through a projector, come to about 20 minutes of running time each. Traditionally, there would be two projectors in the projection booth. The projectionist would hook up reel one on the first projector and reel two on the second. As the first reel wound down, he would see signals in the upper right-hand corner of the movie telling him to shift over to the other projector and the second reel. The audience wouldn’t notice the change, as the images would be aligned; as far as they were concerned, the movie would just continue on. Back in the booth, the projectionist would be busy loading the third reel onto the first projector and prepare to do the next switchover and so forth and so on. Over the years, the projectionist stop having to look for that signal in the corner, as the switch between projectors would become automatic.

     The crucial fact here is that the movie comes in reels. And that all the reels have to be shown and they have to be shown in order. If you don’t see all the reels, then you don’t see all the movie. And if you don’t see all the reels in order, then you don’t see the movie in order.

     Now, please keep following me, because this is important. It affects your quality of film-going. There have been two big changes in projection over the last decade or so. The first big change is that almost all the projectionists in all theaters have been dismissed, retired, laid off, let go, fired, shown the door, and booted. Some of the big theaters in big cities have a projectionist who runs from booth to booth in the multiplexes taking care of ten movies at once. But if you go to a neighborhood multiplex, there’s probably no projectionist at all.

     This is thanks to a technical innovation called the "platter." A platter is just what it sounds like, a big huge round disk. When the reels of film come into a theater, they are all taped together end to end, forming one big giant snake of film that unreels all at once on one projector. No switchovers because, in effect, there’s only one reel.

     Ah, but if someone tapes together the reels and leaves one of them out, then you’re screwed. It’s not like a mixed-up reel change that a projectionist can fix in a few minutes by searching for the right reel. Because once the platter is put together, it can’t be fixed until it has run its entire course. That’s what happened to the print of "Simone" I saw in the Valley that day. A whole reel had simply been left off the platter. I couldn’t believe it. I expected a mass uprising, but to my shock, I looked around and saw my fellow filmgoers were not only not disturbed, but were happy and content, enjoying a sudden irruption of discontinuity like a convention of post-modernists.

     I went down to confront the manager. This is where I discovered real corporate evil. The pencil-pushers and pocket-stuffers who had decided that their theater would have no projectionist had also decided that they’d force their young manager to be their head cashier and platter-splicer, too. This young person was pleasant and hard-working, and I have no doubt underpaid. Not only was I getting screwed by the people who owned and ran the theater chain, but so was the manager.

     Folks, you’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on right under your noses, not to mention right in front of your eyes. You’ve got to complain about a film-going experience that has become a fulltime gouge. I’m a movie addict, so even if I didn’t get to go to screenings, I’d probably keep paying to go. But today’s prices absolutely amaze me. I mean, $9 to see a movie, absent a projectionist in the booth? Or even on the premises? Are you kidding me?

     You have every right to demand a perfect projection of the movie you’ve paid to see. And I’ll let you in on something. No one gets madder over lousy projection of a movie than the person who made it. If you have a bad experience with a movie, go out and check the movie’s poster in the lobby. Get out your pen or pencil and a piece of paper, and copy down the name of the director, the name of the producer or producers, and the name of the studio. Go to the internet, and look up the studio and go to their website homepage. Get their address, and then write to the director and producers care of the studio. It might take a while, but I guarantee the filmmakers will get your letter. Be sure you give the name of the theater and its location. Include the name of the chain its part of (see its ad in the newspaper).

     Be angry. And don’t take it anymore.

Henry Sheehan
August, 2002
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