Studios must revisit d-cinema

Audience experience not what it could be

In the 1960s, Arch Oboler, whose pic “Bwana Devil” had kicked off the 3D boom of the 1950s, spoke to Variety about what had gone so wrong with 3D in those years.

“3D went down the drain,” he opined, “because audiences got cheated.” Among other things, he pointed to sloppy projection, noting that in one Gotham screening, he’d found the two eyes 20 frames out of sync.

Digital production and projection were supposed to have solved a lot of those problems but I’ve begun to think the movie industry is cheating its customers again, and if it doesn’t stop, the “soft” box office we’ve seen so far is only going to get worse.

At studio screenings, 3D movies look reliably sharp and reasonably bright. But when I saw “Thor 3D” at the ArcLight’s Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, it was shockingly dark and fuzzy. My wife took off her Xpand 3D glasses and refused to put them back on. “Too dark,” she whispered.

There was so little parallax (i.e., so little actual 3D) in it that you could watch comfortably without glasses. So the Arc­Light is charging a premium price for a subpar presentation of a movie that’s barely 3D in the first place. That’ll make anyone feel cheated.

Then came the Boston Globe article that accused exhibitors of projecting movies dimly because they weren’t bothering to swap out the 3D lens on their Sony “3D on 4K” projectors when they show 2D movies. The Globe article gets a lot of tech details wrong(Sony notes that even through the 3D lens, the movie should be appropriately bright as long as the projector’s polarizing filter has been flipped out of the way.), and it scapegoats 3D, but the point that movies are simply way, way too dark is undeniable.

Cinematographer Roger Bailey told me “Sometimes when I’m on vacation, I’ll go into a multiplex just to check out the screens, and I’m appalled at how bad the projection is.”

Said Bailey: “It’s unbelievable that in an age when we think we have unbelievable technology, and the studios are talking about eliminating 35mm film prints in the next 18 months, that they haven’t begun to sort out the problems that have been caused by digital projection.”

On the other hand, last week’s “Transformers 3” 3D presentation at Paramount and a screening of “Kung Fu Panda 2” at the Mann Chinese 6 looked crisp and adequately bright.

In fact, 3D has simply exacerbated an existing problem: lax exhibition, undermined by greed and sloth. At Paramount, James Cameron noted digital projectors have gotten brighter to support 3D, but some theaters use the new projectors as an excuse to turn down the projector lamp so it will last longer. Echoing that, Sony 3D maven Rob Engle recently tweeted “A modest proposal … Every 3D digital cinema package should be delivered with a brand new projector lamp included.”

This isn’t just an exhibition problem, though. The problems begin well up the chain.

Rob Hummel, president of Legend3D, says one problem with my “Thor” experience was that I’d seen it at the ArcLight, which uses Xpand. “There’s a problem where people create DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages) for RealD and Dolby,” Hummel says. “RealD and Dolby have a 2-stop light loss. At the Cinerama, you’re watching with Xpand glasses; they have a 3-stop light loss.” In other words, watching a RealD DCP through Xpand glasses means seeing it half as bright as it should be.

Hummel, who worked for Prime Focus while it was converting “Clash of the Titans” said there had been only one 3D DCP created for that movie. “Jim Cameron did dozens of DCPs for ‘Avatar,'” said Hummell, “optimized for each specific theater.” If studios don’t bother to master for all the exhibition formats, and theaters charge extra for substandard projection, aren’t they all cheating their customers, the audience?

Ray Feeney, one of the industry’s leading technologists, says the studios can solve these problems — if they choose to.

When d-cinema specs were being developed, Feeney says, there were fears of a free-for-all, with proliferating formats and technologies. So the studios created the Digital Cinema Initiative to impose standards. “The DCI went to the point of saying if you don’t put in servers that will put up DCPs, and things like that, we won’t give you our movie,” Feeney says. “They used access to their content to enforce the behavior that they desired.”

The DCI succeeded brilliantly for 2D, but it didn’t address 3D. So 3D formats and technologies are proliferating. “We are living the problems in 3D that DCI was created to solve,” Feeney says.

Feeney calls for the studios to establish a DCI 2 to address 3D and other exhibition woes. “There are things that can be done,” he says. “But they’re not simple things. They involve a willingness to actually speak truthfully about what’s out there, not just what people would fanatically hope is actually happening.”

Steven Poster, prexy of the Cinematographers Guild, warns that if the industry continues to abuse the audience, they’ll give up on seeing movies in theaters. “The quality of the 3D Blu-rays that are coming out on 3D television is extraordinary. They have to match that in the theater. Every element of every image informs the audience,” Poster says. “If they can’t see those elements, if they’re too dark, or it’s too uncomfortable, where are they going to go? They’re going to go home to their TVs.”

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Email david.cohen@variety.com

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