Watts up!: A bunch of dim bulbs and projection problems are muddying movies at some Austin cinemas
Jan. 2, 2004, Austin American-Statesman
Last summer at Cinemark Tinseltown in Pflugerville, director Tim McCanlies held a special sneak screening of his family dramedy “Secondhand Lions,” which was filmed in rural areas around Austin. Friends, family and owners of many of the movie’s key locations were there to see a heartwarming story set amid the bright, sprawling beauty of Central Texas.
But the screen never quite glowed; skies were dull and blotchy, the golden hues tarnished.
“The projection was so incredibly dim, people came up to me afterwards saying, ‘I had no idea the whole film was shot at dawn and dusk!,’ which of course it wasn’t,” recalls Paul Alvarado-Dykstra, McCanlies’ assistant on the film.
Inadequate movie projection in Austin theaters — a genuine plague — also made tough work of finding Nemo, let alone any other fish, during the incandescently vivid “Finding Nemo.”
“I knew something was wrong,” says avid Austin moviegoer Kirby McDaniel, who caught “Nemo” at Cinemark Barton Creek. “There was no way the film was supposed to look that dark, especially in a Pixar animated feature for kids. They are supposed to be candy colors!”
Alvarado-Dykstra had the same problem with the same movie at the same theater. “I was horrified by projection so dim it was like watching the movie through sunglasses. Literally. Here’s one of the most visually striking movies of the year, and it was being grossly misrepresented to the audience,” he says.
Cinemark Barton Creek is not the only theater showing movies in a gauze of murk, fuzz, goop. For at least 10 years, I have ground my teeth at dreadful projection quality at chain theaters from California to Texas. In the Bay Area, I walked out of many movies with a refund because the picture was so cloudy.
A recent showing of “Lost in Translation” at the Regal Metropolitan in South Austin was marred by a gray haze over the images, making a perfectly sunny day appear overcast. And I would be hard-pressed to see anything at the Regal Westgate in South Austin after a spate of subpar experiences in projection vibrance. Even the Regal Gateway in North Austin, generally regarded to have the best presentation — sound and picture — in the city, let me down during a mucky screening of “Paycheck” last week.
Not the brightest bulbs
Most say the culprit of these foggy, depressed images is insufficient wattage of projector bulbs, often compounded by the ineptitude of inexperienced employees at chain theaters. Professional projectionists say screen size dictates proper bulb wattage, so the smaller the screen, the less bulb power is required to provide an adequately lit picture.
Problem is, most of the chain theaters — those operated by Regal, Cinemark and AMC in Austin — use extremely large screens in their multiplexes, possibly without proper bulb size or bulb output. Generally, larger multiplex screens demand at least a 3,000-watt bulb but should have a 4,000-watt bulb for an optimal picture.
Neither Regal nor Cinemark would confirm that its cinemas actually under-illuminate the projection in Austin theaters, though the companies provided bulb sizes at some theaters.
The newly reopened Arbor, whose screens are small to medium sized, uses 3,000-watt bulbs in all auditoriums, says Regal spokesman Russ Nunley. Bulbs at Regal’s Westgate run from 2,000 to 4,500 watts, although Nunley said that as a result of inquiries for this story, Regal’s technicians will soon be upgrading the bulbs in three of the auditoriums to 4,000 watts.
Nunley confirmed that at least two auditoriums at Westgate don’t use traditional projection systems, instead using “periscope” systems, which are required when the projector sits lower than the projection portal. How it works: The picture is projected onto a mirror, which reflects it onto another mirror that reflects the picture out to the screen. A periscope system makes the image “lose brightness, focus quality, pretty much everything,” says a Regal manager who asked to go unnamed. Regal inherited the periscope setups when it bought the building from AMC, Nunley says.
But the central issue is bulb wattage. Using less powerful bulbs cuts costs. The bulbs, long xenon arc lamps, aren’t cheap, and their life is quickly consumed when used for five screenings a day. A single 3,000-watt bulb goes for about $550 and lasts about 1,000 hours, which means a bulb needs to be replaced about twice a year per auditorium. A 4,000-watt bulb runs about $800 and lasts about 800 hours.
Slashing overhead is why Cinemark mandated that Tinseltown in Pflugerville downgrade bulbs in 16 of its 20 auditoriums from 4,200 watts to 3,000 watts, according to a former Tinseltown projectionist who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“They said it was to save money. The smaller bulbs cost less and last longer, so it was economically smart,” says the former employee, who noticed that the image on those screens looked “a third dimmer” than they had been. “I look at the whites. If the whites are not bright, then the bulb is too dim.”
Cinemark spokeswoman Terrell Falk says the Pflugerville theater will soon be changing all projection lamphouses, including bulbs, for better efficiency and improved picture quality. Falk said he could not say what bulb wattage is currently being used at the theater.
Film critic Roger Ebert has long been a crusader for optimum film presentation, which he has addressed repeatedly in his Answer Man column in the Chicago Sun-Times, parts of which he e-mailed to me for this story. He reserves particular venom for theaters that don’t run bulbs at their full wattage. This is called lowering the amperage, or juice.
“I first heard about this shameful practice from Martin Scorsese, who actually visits theaters with a light meter to determine if the picture is being projected at the correct light intensity,” Ebert writes. “Moviegoers in some cities may never have seen a properly lit image. The result: sad, dim, washed-out movies. This is stupid for two reasons: (1) discerning customers never return to such theaters, and (2) according to the veteran Chicago movie publicist and distributor John Iltis, the practice does not extend the life of the bulbs!”
In another column, Ebert writes: “Many theater chains routinely order projectionists to turn down the bulb intensity in the mistaken belief that will extend the life of the expensive bulbs. As a result, films look darker than their makers intended. (I) quoted Carl Donath of Kodak in February 1999: ‘A dirty secret is that movies are under-lit in most theaters. Films are produced with the intent that they be projected at the brightness of 16 foot-lamberts. Field research by Kodak found that they are often shown at between 8 and 10 foot-lamberts, well under the SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) standard for brightness.’
“Ironically,” Ebert concludes, “testing shows that bulbs burn just about as long at full power, so theater chains are not only cheap, but stupid. Clip this item, laminate it, and have it ready to show theater managers at a moment’s notice.”
Behind the projector
Human error can’t be dismissed in the great projection debate. Who, after all, is operating the machines?
“In my experience, most presentation problems come from the people who run them,” says Andrew McEachron, who oversees all projection issues at the Alamo Drafthouse’s Austin theaters. “If you have management that just doesn’t care or doesn’t have the resources to fix it, the presentation overall — image, focus, sound — gets knocked down a key. It’s a lot about the personnel and the training.”
McEachron suspects that most major chains “have teenagers making minimum wage running the projectors, sometimes 16 or 17 at once, so there’s no way they’re going to notice problems.”
Jack Dumas, head of a projectionist’s union in Long Island, N.Y., says it’s unlikely a minimally trained employee can maintain several projectors and their many optical parts, which go well beyond the bulb, simultaneously. “There are proper procedures that the manufacturers and professionals recommend, and you have to cut corners when the kid has to go down and sell popcorn again,” Dumas says.
Regal’s Nunley says each projector operator in the chain goes through training and that a “certified (projection) booth trainer” is based in the Austin-San Antonio area “for ongoing development and advancement in training.”
While Cinemark’s Falk confirms that teenagers with some training run their projectors, she says, “It’s not like it’s rocket science, frankly. It’s just flipping switches.”
In Austin, theaters commonly praised by buffs for good or superior picture quality are the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas at Downtown, Lake Creek and the Village, Regal Gateway, the Paramount, the new Arbor Cinema and Regal Metropolitan. All of these theaters use 3,000- and 4,000-watt bulbs. At the Paramount and the Alamos, if a bulb starts to dim or flicker, it is promptly replaced.
When a movie is playing exclusively at a theater with crummy projection there’s often no recourse but to wait for the sharp perfection of DVD. It’s assumed that theater presentations will be uniformly improved with the spread of all-digital projection, which shines with light that is twice as bright as old-fashioned bulbs. In Austin, only the Landmark Dobie has a digital projector used for the occasional digital movie, and other venues, such as the Paramount, bring in digital projection at the request of digital-moviemakers such as Robert Rodriguez (“Spy Kids”).
This eradicates murky facsimiles of what directors intended when they made their movie, and means no more bright afternoon skies being mistaken for dawn or dusk or London in the winter.
“How can a theater advertise that they’re showing a movie when they’re not really showing you the movie the filmmakers made?” asks Alvarado-Dykstra. “How can you even consider presenting a sneak preview of a film — with the intention of building positive word-of-mouth — only to screen a poor, pale misrepresentation of it? Projection this bad is tantamount to fraud.”
McDaniel, for one, was not going to take it anymore. After his bleary “Finding Nemo” experience he complained to the manager, who wondered if the projector lens was dirty. Getting nowhere, McDaniel says, he called a Cinemark representative in Dallas, who apologized, showered him with free movie and popcorn coupons and said the company would look into the problem.
McDaniel used one of the free passes to see “Thirteen” at the same theater, Cinemark Barton Creek.
Nothing had changed. The picture was as crystalline as bath water.
Stats: Burning through money:
Most Austin movie theaters use 3,000- and 4,000-watt xenon projector bulbs, the industry standard. The bigger the screen, the more wattage is required for optimal picture quality. Some theaters use 3,000-watt bulbs when they should be using 4,000. Cost is often the issue.
* A 3,000-watt projector bulb costs about $550 and lasts roughly 1,000 hours, which means a bulb needs to be replaced about twice a year per auditorium.
* A 4,000-watt bulb runs about $800 and lasts about 800 hours.