Strong opinions, weakly held

Are movie theaters misdiagnosing their problems?

Last week, Roger Ebert wrote a piece about the effect improperly operated projectors have on the movie viewing experience. Most of the time, when you go to the movies, the bulb in the projector is insufficiently bright, usually because movie theaters are too lazy or incompetent to configure their digital 3D projectors to project 2D movies properly. (3D movies are inherently less bright than 2D movies, it’s a drawback.) He also points out that improper projection goes back before digital movies, it’s a long term problem in the movie industry.

The decline of movie theaters is blamed on many things, usually the rise of home entertainment. It’s funny, though, this is an area where the market has a perverse effect. Movie theaters compete on the comfort of the seating, but not on the quality of projection. You never see an ad that says, “Brightest projector bulb in the city.” So people go to the movies and have a subpar experience because the picture is difficult to see and then choose to watch something on Netflix Instant or get a DVD from Red Box. Movie theaters don’t have a feedback loop to tell them that the real problem might be the bad job they’re doing operating the projectors.

His piece reminded me of an essay from Slate last year, on the vanishing of professional projectionists. As is often the case, removing skilled professionals from the equation seems economical, but there are also costs, and those costs are probably being lost in the noise.


  1. Way back in the day, I worked part of my way through College at a movie theater. During the slack times, I made friends with the projectionist and he would invite me up to the booth and show me how things worked. The 80+ year-old theater had been recently equipped with a platter and more automation was on the way.

    He sadly (and with some bitterness) explained that management’s plan was to make it so that a single push of a button would dim the house lights, raise the curtain and start the trailer projector (trailers were not on the platter because they changed frequently, the aspect ratio was smaller than the main feature and the film stock was of crappy quality), then bring down the house lights all the way, resize the screen (there were black strips on the sides that would pull out to switch the screen from 4:3 to 16:9) and start the platter. Once that system was in place, they were going to use the assistant managers to push the button and get rid of all but the bare minimum number of projectionists.

    I remember him saying that the whole thing would fall apart if more than one projector had a problem. With only one projectionist working, there was no way to fix more than one at a time, and those assistant managers would have no knowledge or skills such things required.

    Oh well, movie theaters, like newspapers and record companies, are dinosaurs that will go extinct unless they can figure out how to offer something people are willing to pay for. Forking over $10 for tickets + $20 for junk food to sit in a theater with screaming kids to watch whatever poorly-written hollywood cliche ain’t it.

  2. After college, circa 1999, I worked at a single-screen movie theater for a while, where one of the owners was an old-school union projectionist. She actually trained up someone to be a skilled projectionist. Probably the only time in my life when I will be present for the final generational transfer of knowledge and know it while it’s happening. (The last I heard, that trainee was working as a projectionist at the Pacific Film Archives; I imagine the final outposts of projectionist skills will be in places like that.)

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