My Nerd Rant

Star Wars: The problem with movie theaters


First let me start by saying this rant has absolutely nothing to do with the content of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The plot, the effects, the characters, nods to the previous movies, etc in my mind lived up to the hype and did justice to a franchise that had a few hiccups in the past. Kudos to J.J Abrams and his team on great work.

With a movie of this magnitude (in the same lane as Jurassic park, avatar, etc) there are certain expectations people have when going out to see these movies. Most every theater chain actually tries to differentiate based on this. Recliner seats, service at your seat, Alcohol, sound systems, etc- but with a mega movie like this nothing is more important than the movie technology- the picture and sound. I believe this to boil down to two main reasons 1. Lucasfilm is the originator of brands like THX, sound systems and sound mixing as well as technology that had never been done before in the movie experience. 2. People who generally tend to get most excited about these movies (myself included) are nerds about this stuff.

You could imagine my disappointment that despite every effort, my viewing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was ruined by falters in this critical area of picture and sound.

Movies are experiences. Why? Because everyone has (or can have) a pretty amazing experience in their own living room and the need to go out to the movies is only generally because 1. The content is not available on the tv in the living room (ie its a new movie) or 2. It's a desire to have a better experience than can be had in your living room. Such was my desire with Star Wars (which met both reasons). 1. I could not get the content on my tv at home and therefore I sought out the most over the top experience to view Star Wars. Also because it's Star Wars, I was sure that disney, Lucasfilm, ILM, etc would not let this movie falter technically.

With a day off of a work, the opening weekend crowds gone from the theaters, and time to make the most of this experience I started looking for the theater to see Star Wars.

I first went to the local theaters websites (Regal, AMC ,etc). In my research, I also looked for the new technology and new features that Star Wars would be showcasing. It wasn't 3D I was looking for (that's avatar) and it wasn't shot in 3D so that desire was out. IMAX is an amazing experience, but I didn't believe that Star Wars was shot entirely on 70 mm IMAX either (and most of the IMAX theaters locally are "LieMax" digital which isnt close to the real thing). And perhaps a nod to the original Star Wars- a "normal" 2d was what I was looking for. So, I wanted the best 2d picture I could find.

Next comes sound. I have a friend who introduced me recently to atmos. This was intriguing. There hasn't been much talk about THX recently (though to me its still the best and always stood for the premium experience) I found that virtually no theaters were noting THX sound. Dolby seems to be the one driving innovation in sound technology. I made the decision to find a theater optimized with Dolby Atmos and give it a chance. Also, the idea of a overhead channel seemed intriguing to me. About Dolby Atmos

The theater's websites were of no help. They had weird icons indicating sound (not related to the technology), listed all the show times, but didn't give me any other information about the soundtrack. I started making calls. Calling my local Regal only to find out Regal didn't have Atmos. They were out. Next was AMC. The guy told me the local AMC didn't have Atmos, but I could drive to Burbank (probably 1:15 with traffic) and that was not gonna happen. I then went to Dolby's website and to my delight they had a feature touting their Dolby cinema experience. In partnership with AMC, they now had an AMC prime experience complete with Dolby optimized 2d picture and Dolby Atmos sound. AMC Prime Perfect! However, no theaters near me were AMC prime. I started calling again. To my surprise (and contrary to the website) I found that century city AMC had exactly what I was looking for. Star Wars in AMC prime. Dolby Atmos sound, Dolby optimized picture, reserved seating, recliners etc. I decided that the 45 min drive would be worth it. I bought my ticket online ($20 bucks plus a convenience fee), reserved my seat (a good experience by the way) and later that day set out to the theater.

Showing my paid ticket on my phone that was scanned was easy, I got some water, a snack and hit the bathroom (don't want that creeping up and spoiling the movie)

The seat was nice, comfortable, clean and I was set to watch the first movie I had seen in a theater in years. I think Avatar was the last movie I went out and watched in the theater. Why? Well because I have some pretty amazing technology at home, don't have to worry about show times, traffic, parking, seating, bathroom (I can always pause), etc. When I want to go to a movie these days, it's for the experience (and, as I said, I can't get Star Wars on my tv)

The movie starts, a few people clap (I can deal with that) and the story takes me away. Except for one thing. Out of the left corner of my eye, I notice that the left side of the screen is blurry. "Blurry," I think, "that can't be." I try to ignore it. I was into the movie. But it kept creeping up at me in those JJ Abrams detail shots (especially the star fields). And it was annoying when anything happened in the left third of the screen.

The credits roll at the end and behind the credits is a star field. The stars on the right side- sharp and crisp. The stars on the left, like double vision. I look back at the projectors to see what's up. To my surprise I see two windows with the credits rolling in them. One blue( credits are blue) and one white. So they must be using two projectors for added brightness- but that explains the issue immediately. One of the projectors is misaligned. After further research when i get home, I learn that Christie is the projector supplier and they do indeed use two projectors (laser based 4k) to achieve the picture Press release here

Most people have now left the theater and I approach the screen to get a better look and run into the guy coming into the theater to clean. I mention the issue to him in passing. He says he'll look into it. I leave and head to the restroom. Upon leaving the restroom I see the same guy who confirms that they turned off one projector and the blurry issues went away. To his credit he offers to give me my money back- which I decline. Why? Well, it's not about the money to me. I wanted an experience if I was going to see Star Wars for the first time. And it was over and done. I can't rewatch Star Wars for the first time again. Having 29 bucks in my pocket won't give me that experience back. I left with a bad taste in my mouth about my theater experience.

Yes, this is a first world problem, but the movie industry and the companies that produce movies, the technology and show them are business that make many billions of dollars. They claim to offer an experience. People complain about ticket prices and the theaters claim they aren't making money. So, I now have no sympathy for the theaters. They have one job: create a movie experience that is better than my living room and they failed.

I guess I would say I am most disappointed in Dolby (and later learning it was really chrisie) who's brand for me took a serious hit. Since they created a website to show off their theater experience partnership with AMC prime, it's clear now that was a sell out. Dolby may be good at designing the technology and may have great R&D and some ability to bring this technology to the movie theaters, but their certification programs, branding at the movies and their experience is a joke. And worst of all, I fell for it.

So bottom line, I'm done with going to the movies, I have no sympathy for the theater owners, and will likely not go to a movie again at a theater until I have no other choice (avatar 2?), or something changes with this technology- like a theater chain that is actually focused on providing the best possible picture, sound, and experience because its clear to me that none of the theaters today are doing that.

Once the credits roll, it's done (good or bad), you can't watch it for the first time again.

I will add a few disclaimers:

  • 1. I am the top few percent of tech geeks that would see a movie like this. I work in a visual field and for a company that makes projectors (though not in the projector division). I bet that 99% of the people walked out of that same theater not even noticing the issue.
  • 2. I have a very good system at home I'm comparing his to. Namely a projector from my company which is amazing, an over the top sound system, and hundreds if not thousands of hours dialing everything in to be the best it can be (and it's not perfect to me- but I'll be fixing some issues shortly).