screen time

Bad Projection Is Ruining the Movie Theater Experience

Multiplexes are failing at their most basic function: delivering a bright, sharp image.

Photo: PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Michelle Pfeiffer and Jonathan Majors look like crap. Usually, they’re two of the most radiant, dermatologically exceptional people in the world. But right now, they’re decrepit husks of themselves, their faces so drained of color that they could pass for cadavers.

I’m watching Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania — in which she plays Ant-Man’s girlfriend’s mom, Janet van Dyne, and he plays time-traveling villain Kang the Conqueror — at the AMC Empire 25 near Times Square. Although a ticket to this matinee costs more than a month’s worth of Netflix’s priciest subscription plan, the image onscreen is so dim that it’s hard to make out much of the movie’s action and all of its glamorous stars have been turned dark gray. Next to me is Jack Theakston, a projection specialist who works as a contractor at Dolby Laboratories, who immediately diagnoses the problem: This is a 2-D showing of Ant-Man, but some neglectful employee has forgotten to remove the 3-D filter from the projector.

“It’s a polarized lens that cuts a picture’s brightness by a third,” he says. “They just have to push it to the side when they switch to 2-D, but theaters forget to do it all the time. You can tell when it’s happening because if you look at the port-window glass, instead of a single image, you’ll see two, with one stacked on top of the other.” He points up to the booth behind us, and sure enough, there are two stacked beams.

Theakston, who’s also a member of the IATSE Local 306 cinema-technicians union, has agreed to spend the afternoon assessing the projection quality at the AMC Empire and nearby Regal E-Walk multiplex, the flagship locations of the two largest cinema chains in the U.S. I buy us tickets to various movies, and we sneak around from theater to theater.

At AMC, Ant-Man is the worst offender, but in another auditorium, trailers are playing on a screen that’s creased and sagging. Almost as bad: The picture is trapezoidal instead of rectangular, a phenomenon known as keystoning, which happens when a projector is not set up perpendicular to the screen. It’s fixable with software, if one bothers to do it.

Across the street at the Regal E-Walk, there’s a torn masking curtain at Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, an out-of-calibration projector creating oddly colored highlights in Titanic 3D, and a presentation of Magic Mike’s Last Dance that bleeds a few inches off the top of the screen. And don’t get Theakston started on the bleak spectacle of the multiplex’s lobbies, the result of ongoing renovations. “It’s unacceptable to just have bare drywall like this,” he says on our way out. “They had the entire pandemic to redo this place and it still looks awful.”

Anybody who still feels compelled, as I do, to see new movies in a theater needs a high tolerance for irritation. Exhibitors are constantly finding new ways to make the experience worse — from noisy, sub-Applebee’s dine-in service to AMC’s recently announced plan to charge more depending on where you sit. But the only thing that reliably makes me wish I’d waited for a title to come out on streaming is bad projection. If a movie theater can’t perform its most basic function and deliver a sharp, well-lit image with the right colors and contrast, then we might as well knock it down and put up a bank.

For some theaters, this is seemingly too much to ask. Despite their inconsistency, the Empire and E-Walk are among the better multiplexes I’ve been to lately, and they certainly beat most of the ones outside the city. Last year, at a Regal in Hampton Bays, I saw a screening of The Batman that was so dark I had to read the movie’s plot summary on Wikipedia just to find out how it ended. At Don’t Worry Darling in Farmingdale, the picture hung off the right side of the screen by a foot.

To be fair, theaters are broke. The pandemic closed them for a year, and then it disrupted Hollywood’s supply chain such that when multiplexes reopened there weren’t enough new movies to fill their schedules. Meanwhile, most first-run films now wind up on streaming after just a few weeks, and plenty bypass theaters altogether. Attendance, which had been in decline for two decades, has entered free fall: In 2022, ticket sales were down by more than 30 percent from 2019. Regal’s parent company filed for bankruptcy in September, and AMC has avoided the same fate (for now) thanks mainly to the meme investors who bought the company’s stock ironically.

But the picture problems predated COVID-19. Many can be traced to 2009, when theaters swapped their film projectors for digital ones, made primarily by Sony, to show the original Avatar. Studios were excited about the switch because it meant they could save money by distributing movies over the internet instead of mailing around heavy film prints. Theater owners were excited because digital projectors could be programmed to run on their own without human projectionists to start them up and switch reels.

Those projectionists, though, were highly skilled engineers and troubleshooters. Now that multiplexes use automated projection, problems fall to house managers, who, in this age of austerity, may be the same overworked employees ripping tickets and selling popcorn. If an error is serious or demands more than a wiped lens or system reboot, it might have to wait a couple weeks for a visit from a technician — or even longer if nobody complains.

Today, the most common issue moviegoers are likely to encounter is a dim picture. One reason is that many of those Avatar-era projectors are still in service and showing their age. In 2020, Sony announced it was exiting the cinema-projection business and recently ended support on the models used by major chains. This was especially problematic because those machines have a known liability issue, an analyst tells Digital Cinema Report: “The ultraviolet light from the projector’s lamp slowly destroys the imaging device, and the projected image loses color. The solution is to replace the imaging devices once or twice a year.” But that’s an expensive fix, so not enough theaters do it.

Digital Cinema Initiatives, a joint venture between major film studios, recommends that commercial theaters project their films at a minimum of 14 footlamberts, a standard of brightness roughly equivalent to the amount of light that would be produced by 48 wax candles per square meter of screen space. One maintenance technician, who asked for anonymity while criticizing the theaters that employ him, told me that some places with old Sonys are getting as few as six footlamberts.

Another contributor to muddy pictures is worn-out light bulbs. Projector bulbs are supposed to be used for only a certain number of hours, typically between 1,000 and 5,000 based on their wattage. But since a single one can cost around $1,500, plenty of theaters push them past their expected lifespans. “A xenon bulb will darken over time because it builds up soot on the inside of the glass,” says Theakston. “The projector will actually tell you how long a bulb has been in there. I’ll walk into a booth and see flashing red lights on the back of a projector — Oh, yep, this one is a few hundred hours past expiration — but they’ll just run it until it burns out.” Replacing a bulb is “a 15-minute procedure,” Theakston says. “But it takes skill because those bulbs are highly pressurized, and if they break, they’ll explode.”

Even when used as intended, 3-D filters like the one at Ant-Man can darken a movie to four footlamberts. Theaters will often compensate by installing high-gain screens with silver coatings, which reflect more light than standard matte white. Depending on where you’re sitting, though, results will vary. These screens appear most luminous to viewers in middle sections, but if you’re watching from the side, the picture may be only half as bright. (By the way, none of these dimness problems are helped by the fact that films themselves have been getting darker lately.)

I call up a few other projectionists who are not only willing but elated to share their own extremely specific gripes about the ways movies are shown these days. But most of them seemed to agree that everything really went to hell when multiplexes quit masking — the term for hiding the borders of a screen so that the projected image fills the whole area. “I just get so furious when the masking is off,” says Gregory Wolfe, who’s been projecting at Lincoln Center the past 30 years.

Technically, a lack of masking is a presentation issue — a sign that a theater no longer cares — but it can lead to projection problems, too. Cinemas generally show movies in one of two aspect ratios, the taller Flat (1.85:1) or its wider cousin Scope (2.39:1). Until a few years ago, motorized curtains were deployed to cover the unused screen space on the sides (for Flat) or top and bottom (for Scope). But some curtainless cinemas will let their pictures spill over the edges or adjust their projectors to crop the movies themselves, which costs viewers both light and resolution. “You’d probably only notice this if they put a test pattern on the screen,” says the maintenance tech, though it can be worse for movies with nontraditional aspect ratios. “Sometimes the end titles get cut off on the sides.”

“And those curtains weren’t just for masking,” says Theakston. “They were also to protect your screen. At the end of the night, when the cleanup crews come into these multiplexes, they bring in leaf blowers and just blow everything down. That’s why you’ll see little flecks of popcorn covering the screen. And you can’t spot-clean a screen. If you try, you’ll have one pristine spot making the rest look even dingier.”

But since most audience members don’t know how bright a picture is supposed to be, what masking is, or how to speak up if something is amiss, even simple issues can fester. “I’ve seen dead bugs on the port glass that create shadows big enough to make an entire image darker,” says Genevieve Havemeyer-King, a projectionist and a senior digital-collection specialist at the Library of Congress. “You just clean the glass and everything looks fine again.”

In recent years, a backlash to digital and automated projection has created a flourishing niche market for old-fashioned film. Specialty theaters such as the Nitehawk, Quad, Metrograph, and Roxy in New York, the New Beverly in Los Angeles, and Alamo Drafthouses nationwide tout their 35-mm. projectors in their marketing. But most projectionists I spoke to were media agnostic and told me that, with proper care, digital can look just as good as celluloid — or sometimes better, since even film isn’t what it used to be. “I did a 70-mm. run of Licorice Pizza at Lincoln Square,” Theakston says, “and none of those recent 70-mm. prints look like the old 70-mm. prints did. They’re all very sloppy. It’s a cheap ploy to upcharge for tickets.”

To its credit, AMC is at least doing something. The chain recently announced plans to install laser projectors, made by the Belgian audiovisual company Barco, in 3,500 of its U.S. theaters by 2026. These machines offer better brightness, colors, and contrast than standard digital projectors. They’re also bulb free and can run for 20,000 hours before their light systems need replacing. (Both AMC and Regal already use them for Imax and other premium screenings.) But laser projectors are still vulnerable to errors of neglect — i.e., dead bugs and misapplied 3-D lenses — and can introduce problems of their own, including a tendency toward green and magenta highlights. Also “when you use a laser projector with a high-gain screen, there’s this thing called speckling, where the picture looks like it’s shimmering,” says the maintenance tech. “It’s like when you drive on the highway and look at the road ahead and see something that looks like water but it’s not water.”

But by 2026, many of today’s moviegoers may have permanently converted to watching at home. Why should they bother going to a multiplex anymore, even one with laser projectors, when a new 55-inch 4K television can suddenly be had for under $400? Watching a film in your living room may never match the experience of seeing it in a great theater with well-maintained equipment, but modern televisions can consistently deliver better images than the average run-down movie house. LED displays have gotten so good and so cheap that there’s even been talk of theaters replacing their screens with them.

One reason for the lack of urgency in resolving the projection crisis could be that the people who make movies see them differently than we do. Before industry screenings for members of the directors and writers guilds, an army of technicians attends to every projector, bulb, and screen to ensure that films look perfect. Meanwhile, the loudest proponents of the theater experience — Nolan, Scorsese, Spielberg, Tarantino — have custom-built cinemas in their homes that surpass any of the fleapits where you or I can see Tenet or The Fabelmans. (The Wall Street Journal describes one such sanctuary: “In his 1940s Art Deco-styled screening room, with frosted-glass sconces, cherry-wood ribbing and fluted bronze panels, Mr. Spielberg sits in the back, on the highest tier of the stadium seats, directing the entire experience with his remote.”)

To demonstrate how the other half watches, Theakston takes me to the private state-of-the-art cinema where he works, the Dolby 88 Screening Room on 55th Street, home to a pair of hulking Christie Eclipse E3LH high-dynamic-range laser projectors. I grab a seat near the center of the room, and Top Gun: Maverick fills the screen. As Tom Cruise saves the Air Force’s hypersonic-scramjet program by destroying an aircraft at Mach 10, Theakston hollers over the Dolby Atmos surround sound, “We get 32 footlamberts in here!” My corneas can feel the difference.

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Bad Projection Is Ruining the Movie Theater Experience