SF Weekly's Ultimate Guide to Bay Area Filmgoing

"The Final 10 Percent": The Art of Moviegoing

Of course, good audiences sometimes thrive in unlikely circumstances, and bad audiences invade the cushiest venues. But the fitness of ambience and presentation often determines whether ticket-buyers will become an involved group of moviegoers or an unruly gang. Theater owners and managers function as the gatekeepers to a moviegoing nirvana or fool's paradise. Hence, this peek through their keyholes.

-- Michael Sragow

Light and Fog: The ABCs of Projection
A writer can spend years honing a screenplay, and a production company can spend millions of dollars making a movie. The cinematographer can craft a symphony of light and shadow. But the ultimate arbiter of your filmgoing experience, in many theaters at least, is very often the kid at the candy counter, who earns minimum wage for pulling sodas, greasing popcorn, and projecting your movie.

This is nothing new -- the gradual de-professionalization of motion-picture projection goes back at least 20 years, with the decline of the once all-powerful projectionists' union and the simultaneous raising up of multiplexes. Chain theaters (famously, the United Artist circuit in the 1970s, after it locked out its union) began training their adolescent personnel not only to project, but to multiproject.

The technological development that allows this is the platter system. Traditional theater booths have two projectors: Every 20 minutes a professional projectionist -- keeping an eye out for the second of two easily overlooked flashes, or cue marks, in the upper right-hand corner of the screen -- changes over to the other projector.

But almost all films these days are loaded whole onto great platters, which allow a continuous, two-hour-plus run. One union projectionist of my acquaintance flits from one theater (with several screens) to another, traveling a circuit keyed to starting times. All he need do is start the film rolling in each room. Platters are now an industry standard: Major theaters in the Bay Area that show movies the old-fashioned way include the Castro, the UC, the Stanford, the Pacific Film Archive, and the Roxie.

It's not hard to see the downsides of this. One is that a misalignment, or a single bit of dirt in the wrong place, can gouge the entire print of a film for many screenings to come. Also, theaters tend not to have a projectionist around when things (inevitably) go wrong. Another problem is that, once they do go wrong, the platters can't be rewound. If the picture or sound goes askew for a significant amount of time (which tends to be the case, when, again, there's not a projectionist on duty to catch the problem early), there's no way to go back and let the audience see or hear what it missed.

Theater owners for years have sought the elusive Endless Loop Platter (ELP), which would necessitate no care or attention beyond a daily loading. Despite the best efforts of many technicians, however, the thing has never worked. This no doubt depresses theater owners: The true techs, particularly union techs like my well-traveled friend, continue to be very well paid. Which is fair, considering that they're required to be able to maintain and fix the oft-balky equipment. (Though others complain that their hours are so curtailed that they literally have no time for maintenance.) The candy-counter crowd, meanwhile, barely know how to focus a camera; they project films at the wrong aspect ratio, or skew it up or down, or to one side or the other.

It's too bad, because good projection is as essential a part of the moviegoing experience as a good sound system, comfortable seats properly aligned, and so on. People are often unaware of little things that give them a less-optimum experience than they deserve. Few audience members, for example, know of the importance of a bright projection bulb. A few years ago, a friend of mine was working for Lucasfilm, prepping a theater for a preview screening of Willow. One of his jobs was to make sure the management ran the film with the xenon bulb in the projector properly turned up: To save money, theaters will often burn the bulbs dimmer than they should be (so that they will last longer), or keep using them after they begin to go. Projectionists say that bulbs rated to last 2,000 hours, or about half a year's worth of work, can be made to last 8,000 hours. (The cheaper bulbs cost $400 to $600; the money saved is on the order of about a penny a ticket.) But there are a lot of other ways not enough light can get to the screen: What's called the lamp house can be insufficiently powerful for the room. Or the bulb's wattage may be too low (another money-saving move). The mirror and bulb can be out of alignment. Or the lens can be out of focus. (To be fair, it sometimes happens that the film prints are dim.)

I've learned to stay away from certain theaters prone to dim projection. In my experience the most dim-bulbed theaters are run by United Artists; on the other hand, Landmark and the AMC's Kabuki tend to be very good in this regard, and operations run by movie lovers -- generally the ones with two projectors -- do consistently excellent work.

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