It takes a nation of millions not to read them.

Shine a Light

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The following is the adapted text of an e-mail I sent today to the Reading Cinemas theater chain and our local Tower Theatre regarding my and Adriane’s repeated experiences with dim projection at the Tower:

To Reading Cinemas and the management of the Tower Theatre:

Saturday evening, April 16, 2011, my fiancée and I attended the 7 p.m. screening of Tom McCarthy’s Win Win on Screen 3 at the Tower Theatre in Sacramento.

We both enjoyed the movie very much. Our experience, however, was made less pleasant by obviously dim projection. Even during daytime exterior scenes, it was as though we were watching the film through smoke-tinted glass. (We had a similar experience at a recent screening of Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre in the largest of the Tower’s three screening rooms, although that film is marked by much bleaker production design, making the nuances of projection less immediately apparent to the eye.)

Roger Ebert has written often on his Chicago Sun-Times website about the common misconception among theater owners and some projectionists that they are somehow conserving power or bulb life, saving money, or protecting the film stock by projecting films with the lamp turned down to a dimmer (or, erroneously, “cooler”) magnitude. In fact, none of these assumptions are true, and by doing so, all you ensure is a diminished viewing experience for your paying audience of a film that deserves much better presentation.

Fast forward to Saturday, June 25, when we attended the 9:30 p.m. screening of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life on Tower’s Screen 2. Here is a film which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, whose director is widely acknowledged as a visionary of the cinema. Because his last film was released in 2005 and the one before that in 1998, a film by Malick should be treated as an event. The director himself even went so far as to send a letter imploring projectionists screening The Tree of Life to follow certain specific guidelines.

Admittedly, I don’t know the particulars of film projection well enough to argue Malick’s letter point by point, but I know dim projection when I see it. I saw it again on Screen 2 that Saturday evening, and it was enough like watching a movie projected through smoked glass that I am fairly convinced the Tower Theatre disregarded most if not all of Malick’s instructions. I have now seen dimly projected films on all three of Tower’s screens over a span of two months and have begun to believe that I should expect such a presentation to be the rule, not the exception, whenever I lay down my $9.50 at the Tower.

We had enjoyed the Tower on a number of previous occasions since we moved to Sacramento last year and had looked forward to coming back often. Because the Tower is an art-house theater, it is in many cases the only venue that offers Sacramentans certain indie or foreign films with necessarily limited distribution — a public service in itself. The opportunity to watch these films is not enough, though, if we can’t also see them as they were intended. And so we find ourselves on the Fourth of July, eager to see Mike Mills’ new film Beginners but unwilling to squint through dim projection at a film worthy of better treatment, even if the Tower is our only local option.

While I appreciate that the cost of replacing a Xenon projection bulb is vastly greater than, say, my swapping out the headlamp on my Volkswagen (I priced the former recently via Google, and believe me, I sympathize), the mere act of projection is the first and foremost service your theaters perform that bring us all to your doorstep when we’d otherwise just stay home and watch TV or, God forbid, read a book.

Yours truly,

Brent Shepherd

This is the second such missive I’ve been compelled to forward to a movie theater over the years. I wrote the first — a sort of template for this letter — in December 2004 in response to a distressingly dark screening of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s period drama A Very Long Engagement at the Regent Showcase theater in the middle of Hollywood, of all places. I had gone to see the same film projected beautifully at the Laemmle’s Royal in Santa Monica two days later and wanted to see if I could get some satisfaction from the management of the Showcase. I never received a response, not even a screw-you for my trouble and effort.

I don’t expect to receive one from Reading or the Tower, either. But I also want them to know that they stand to lose business once filmgoers make the connection between projection quality of the films they’re seeing at the big multiplexes and that of the films they’re seeing at the Tower.

No one appreciates more than I the economics of movie theaters in general and marginalized independent theaters in particular, which earn virtually none of their revenue from the ticket sales of the films they screen. They are kept in business by those advertisements they screen before the movie, by leasing their theaters out for other uses during the day, and by the increasingly exorbitant prices they charge for concessions.

But let’s face it: When those advertisements a theater screens before the movie are projected more brightly and crisply than the films you have paid to see — they are almost always projected using a separate projector that throws up images at a much lower resolution — we now have a breach in the contract between the service provider and the consumer.

You don’t have to be a cinephile like me to know when something you’re watching isn’t projected brightly enough to be worth your two hours and your 10 dollars. If something doesn’t look right to you, you’ll know it, in which case you should take the matter to the management by threatening to take your business elsewhere.

NOTE: The above applies to theaters that still project film prints. For information about the issues inherent to the more modern digital and 3-D equipment being installed in the larger multiplexes, you can do no better than Ty Burr’s excellent May 22, 2011, Boston Globe article “A movie lover’s plea: Let there be light” and the aforementioned Roger Ebert’s May 24, 2011, blog entry “The Dying of the Light.”


Written by Shepcat

July 4, 2011 at 5:11 pm

Posted in Movies

One Response

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  1. […] the second time I’ve experienced bad projection of a period drama co-starring Mia Wasikowska, the previous occasion being a screening of Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre at a theater in Sacramento. That theater was […]

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