Studios need polished theaters to sell pics

Apple Stores are prime example of product showplace

Two weeks ago I wrote about the problems of digital cinema and crummy exhibition. In response I am getting a steady stream of calls and emails, many from studio pros telling me the problems are even worse than I’d said.

Several people had comments like those of Steve Barnett, VP of post-production at 20th Century Fox. Barnett said, “Generally, movie theaters have a very hard time making sure the product looks good up on the screen. I think that’s hurting us with our audiences.”

Meanwhile, I visited a 2D-to-3D conversion company on one of the studio lots. And while I was sitting there, watching bright, clear 3D images far better than anything I’ve seen in a multiplex lately, I realized, like I was shot in the forehead with Col. Kurtz’s diamond bullet, what the movie business needs. Theaters need to turn into Apple Stores. OK, not literally.

Both Apple and Hollywood are, to a large extent, selling design. Apple sells industrial design, and Hollywood sells the look of its movies. If acting and story are the steak in a movie, the look is the sizzle. Enormous effort and vast sums are spent polishing that look during production and post.

Then those movies, which might have cost $400 million to make and market, are shown to customers at theaters that deliver wildly uneven experiences, often nothing like what the filmmakers intended. Exhibitors commonly turn projector lamps down to save money. Andrew Poulain, director of cinema and studio programs for THX Ltd, told me, “We did a study of screen brightness when it was all 35mm. It was 33% less than what it should have been.” That problem has only been exacerbated by 3D.

The point of all that cinematography, color grading and mastering is that the picture’s look affects how the audience feels, just as acting and story do. I saw “Enchanted” at a Disney screening, then again at a multiplex in Henrietta, N.Y., with my family. On the lot, it was a glowing confection. In the multiplex, it was probably two stops darker, and a much more subdued experience for it. And that’s without 3D.

“People need to take pride in the presentation of movies,” Barnett said. “The bulbs need to be changed regularly. The light needs to be aligned every week — not the fancy calibration, just the light. I very often say to the manager, ‘Where’s your light meter?’ And he has no idea what I’m talking about.”

In the 1980s there was an attempt to establish certification for quality projection: the Theater Alignment Program. But TAP was absorbed by NATO in 1987 and quietly died. Lucasfilm started the THX certification program, which continues today as THX Ltd., but only 2,000 screens worldwide are THX certified, half in the U.S., and even THX audits theaters just once a year after they’re certified. Barnett and others are calling for a new TAP today. At the very least, a certification program with published results would give auds information about which theaters are putting more effort into presentation. That would bring market pressures to bear.

Which brings us back to Apple. A decade ago, its products were languishing in corners at Fry’s Electronics and Staples, sold by clerks who knew nothing about them. Steve Jobs’ answer was to take charge of retail via the Apple Stores, so Apple’s beautifully designed products would be shown in pristine stores by passionate salespeople. Now, its stock is up 3,000% and it’s sitting on $64 billion in cash.

The studios need theaters to be their Apple Stores, to show off the movies in the best light possible (no pun intended). Since the studios are forbidden from Apple-style vertical integration after the Supreme Court’s 1948 Paramount decision, owning the theaters is out. But self-policing is failing. So the movies need projection cops to ensure its customers get the same experience filmmakers get in screening rooms, and to give exhibitors a simplified d-cinema ecosystem that “just works.” Something run by a demanding leader intolerant of failure. Something like Apple, run by someone like Steve Jobs.

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