‘Button’ undone by digital dilemma

Screening of Oscar hopeful goes awry

“Welcome to digital,” wrote producer Frank Marshall in a morning-after email following Thursday night’s aborted unveiling of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

Paramount had sweated every detail Thursday as the studio prepared to screen its long-anticipated Oscar hopeful to a hand-picked audience of press and prominent bizzers at the DGA Theater. Marshall and partner Kathy Kennedy were on hand to introduce the $150 million-plus pic, which they had been nurturing for 18 years.

Par execs were so eager to get the movie in front of guild and Academy members and key press that they weren’t willing to wait another week for release prints. In any case, finicky director David Fincher preferred to showcase his technologically ambitious digital movie — which deploys complex visual effects to make Brad Pitt age backward — with a digital projector. The two trial runs during the day had gone smoothly.

But “Benjamin Button” became the latest Oscar-season victim of digital gremlins.

The picture had a peculiar green tint, and in the audience, d.p. Claudio Miranda got a sinking feeling. “Initially I thought there was something wrong with my eyes for a second. I was rubbing them,” he told Daily Variety, “I said ‘no way.’ ”

He dashed to the projection booth, and a few minutes later brought the lights up and stopped the screening. “We like green but not that much,” he apologized to the packed house. “The movie’s not supposed to look like that.”

After several abortive attempts at addressing the absence of magenta, the screening was canceled. “On the right setting it was wrong and on the wrong setting it was right,” explained Marshall, who apologized to various invitees gathered in the lobby for an impromptu party, helping themselves liberally to the planned post-show food and drink.

“When you shoot a movie digitally,” Kennedy told Daily Variety later, “you’re dependent on those projectors being calibrated perfectly and everything working perfectly. Even the condition of the screen is important.”

Marshall added, “This is a modern-day version of the film breaking, but you can’t paste it back together and keep going.”

Across town at the ArcLight, another digital screening for Screen Actors Guild members went off without a hitch.

The chagrined publicists and filmmakers hastily scheduled a slew of screenings beginning Saturday at noon to accommodate those who missed the film Thursday.

Everyone pointed to the digital projection system, which Par rented for the occasion, as Thursday night’s culprit.

Of course screening glitches are nothing new; broken film, busted projector bulbs and switched or missing reels have long plagued screenings. One publicist recalls with horror an unspooling of “Six Weeks” in which the second reel turned into a rabid killer dog movie. The 2006 Toronto Film Fest world premiere of “Borat” broke down and was canceled.

But pristine and perfect digital was supposed to solve all that.

An October digital screening at the Landmark of Steven Soderbergh’s Spanish-language “Che” took cinema verite to a new level as it played without subtitles for 15 minutes before the lights went up and everyone was sent home. A few weeks later at the Wilshire Screening Room, subtitles from “Che” spilled over the opening minutes of “Doubt”; the problem was quickly fixed. A Miramax spokesman said the digital projector had not been “properly vetted” after the previous screening of “Che.”

“Doubt” writer-helmer John Patrick Shanley laughed when told about the glitch, and recalled sitting through the entire premiere of “Joe vs. the Volcano” with the movie out of focus. “You just feel terrible,” he said. “You work so hard and here are people getting their first exposure to the movie. Maybe their only exposure.”

These recent problems raise questions about screening room hardware and projection-room expertise in operating new d-cinema projectors.

When Kennedy welcomed the Saturday noontime aud at the far grander Paramount Studio Theater, she quipped that it was like being “upgraded to first class.” The pic proceeded with notably better color.

Afterward Kennedy and Miranda agreed that the Par venue was better for “Benjamin Button” anyway.

“Most cinemas are like this one,” said Miranda. The digital projector “lives there. This one is flawless.”

Aside from the DGA snafu, Par found one upside to digital screenings this season. At a Nov. 16 screening of “Revolutionary Road” at the Raleigh Pickford screening room, a woman became ill during the pic’s final scene. When the audience yelled to turn on the lights, the projectionist halted the film, and an ambulance took the woman away.

After rewinding a few minutes, the movie resumed, so the audience could get the full impact of the climax. That would have been impractical with a film print.

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