Go Dr Kermode!

Our rather lovely NEC2000C in Box Three.

I’m a big fan of the good doctor and a regular listener to Wittertainment. We’re of a similar age and have similar formative cinema experiences. Sometimes we even sound alike, we both say “I say it here, it comes out there” a lot. Some of you may even know where that comes from.

As an independent cinema owner his current multiplex bashing crusade, with particular reference to the death of the cinema projectionist,  is obviously music to my ears.

Broadly I agree with everything he says, obviously I’m more than a tad biased, but I’ve rarely had a good experience at a multiplex in 20 years, however, I believe he’s wrong to blame the advent of digital projection.

The multiplex projectionist was an endangered species long before digital arrived.

Here is Dr Kermode’s recent online article from The Radio Times. And here is his piece to camera for Kermode Uncut on the BBC website.

I think it’s wrong to blame digital, multiplexes have simply swapped 35mm cock ups for digital cock ups. To suggest everything was fine with multiplex 35mm projection is erroneous.

Because multiplexes have always skimped on having properly trained technical staff, 35mm presentations often had problems, they were just different problems.

Out of focus was the most common in my experience, followed by an incorrectly framed picture and more often than not, simply not loud enough. Scratched prints would also come up from time to time.

If I went to a multiplex before digital my wife would sit patiently as I banged my head on the seat in front wailing: “Does no one look out the bloody porthole? That’s what it’s there for.”  or “When the feature goes on, check the bloody focus! It’s really as simple as turning a knob on the front of the projector!”

Digital has pretty much eliminated all the aforementioned problems, bar the volume level. You can’t get it out of focus, you can’t rack it incorrectly and you certainly can’t scratch it.

I was always taught to go into the theatre and check sound and picture for myself because you can’t always tell from the box. Something I do to this day. I’ve never seen it done in a ‘plex. Digital and automation makes that process easier so there is no excuse not to do it.

What you have is a set of other potential pitfalls. Digital file and server glitches or automation howlers ensuring the film is projected with the lights up on the wrong size screen.

The mistake is not having anyone technical on the building to sort any problems out, or more importantly noticing them in the first place. In that regard the good doctor is correct.

Now, let he who is without and all that, I’m not suggesting we haven’t had the odd glitch or two since going digital but because we have projectionists they are usually sorted pretty pronto. If it means anything it also really spoils our day.

We’re still learning of course, and in defence of the beleaguered multiplex popcorn monkey trying manfully to get the show back on it’s a steep learning curve.

I have over 30 years experience in a projection box, on 35mm I can keep a show going with duct tape and an elastic band, if the film breaks I can splice it back together. I once manually fed the whole of Schindler’s List through the projector to keep the show on-screen.  That movie is 3 hours long.

With digital if it really goes wrong the only thing I can do is turn it off and turn it on again. You know, like your crappy windows computer at home. Only my digital projectors were £50,000 each. Which pretty much puts me on a par with the popcorn monkey.

It’s a bit more complex than that of course. My tech department and I have leant a lot in the last year but digital can make you feel pretty impotent at times because there is so much to learn and so many more things that can go wrong. Film was mechanical so you can see with your own eyes what’s going on. A bunch of circuit boards is not so easy to interrogate.

So having said all of that, sacking your projectionists seems like stupidity. Worse, it reveals contempt for your audience. The reason we are here is to show you the film in the best way possible and we have a duty to make that priority number one.

This is where I urge the good doctor to continue his crusade, because I’m petrified this bottom line attitude is going to take us all down. I’m here to make a living like everybody and much of what I do is driven by the need to make a profit, but like most independents that are left I really do care passionately about what we do. We really are “fanatical about film”, it’s not just a corporate slogan.

People’s perception of cinemas overall is pretty crummy, which upsets me deeply. But I’m only one man, doing the best I can on a limited budget.

I was struck by what Mark Cousins said in the introduction to his brilliant Story of Film series on More 4 (which you really should be watching), it’s not box office that drives cinema, it’s  passion and innovation.

In the exhibition business if we don’t regain some of that passion were finished. There are too many other ways to see films, too many other things to do for cinemas to be purely popcorn dispensing stations. And actually if you make the presentation perfect more people will come and you will sell more popcorn.

Apologies if this all sounds a bit pompus. I know we’re not perfect. But, you know…

Not sure what you do about idiots on mobile phones though. Anyone?

7 thoughts on “Go Dr Kermode!

  1. I feel the pain, Mr. Markwick – I’m a two-screen independent currently playing only as a single, because of a digital projector going *boom*

    An expensive proposition.

    As for the mobile ‘phone crowd? Some sort of high tech jamming device? Or maybe the threat of violence. Or the promise of a prompt ejection from the venue if your fellow attendees complain about you?

    • Oh dear, I’m sorry to hear that. Which machine is it? We did have complete failure on one of the NECs earlier in the year. All the main cards had to be replaced. Doesn’t fill you with confidence does it?

      I have to say I love digital though. More flexibility with the programming alone means it pays for itself. Not to mention the added bonus of live opera, ballet, theatre etc.

  2. Fascinating. I have only recently discovered your blog, Mr M, although I lived in Uckfield for a good 15 years before university called… I do feel your pain as I am a lover of technology but I really like getting hands on. The more digitised the world becomes, the less we get to get our hands dirty and the more we have to rely on programmers. Also, as technology becomes cheaper and more integrated, everything becomes more disposable. I suppose only a few components failed on your NEC projector, but because those components were integrated into big circuit boards, the whole lot goes on the rubbish heap. Sad really, and not very environmental.

    As to mobile phones: Build a faraday’s cage around the whole cinema: you’ll have reduced interference with your equipment, and mobile phones will have no signal! 😉

  3. Re the mobiles: if people are daft enough to pay to see a film and spend the time texting, that’s up to them, but making or receiving a call in a cinema, theatre, concert hall, art gallery or similar is anathema.I’ve never heard anyone speak in a normal voice on a mobile. Why do they have to shout? And aren’t they aware that nobody else is interested in their lives or the often intimate details of same that they bellow out for all and sundry to hear? Why do people think they are so important that they have to be in communication at all times of the day or night? Can they really not spend a couple of hours in peace, absorbed in the film? If there’s an emergency on, why go to the cinema anyway? I notice more and more people ignore the pleas to turn mobiles off in certain places. Just part of the me first culture of today, I suppose. A great chorus of ‘sshh!!!’ from all the audience might shame some into silence, maybe, but some people are shameless.

  4. Kevin,

    As someone who believes in high-quality presentation, I think that the move to digital projection is, on the whole, a good thing. At least in small to medium-size screens it is. I’ve not yet seen digital projection on a really big screen, so I can’t say how effective it is when blown-up.

    The sharpness and clarity of the digital presentation in your cinema is very good indeed as is the sound. My local is the multiplex in Eastbourne. A terrible cinema on the whole. But, even there, sharpness, clarity and sound quality has noticeably improved as they gradually re-equipe with digital projectors.

    Like yourself I’ve experienced my share of dodgy or downright poor presentations and like you say, its generally poor focus that is to blame. As someone who used to run and handle projection for a film
    society, this generally drives me nuts. And I agree that it is inexcuseable in a professionally run commercial cinema. So not having film physically running through a projector gate means that once focus is set, it should stay that way.

    As for mobile phones, my advice is to never go to the cinema in an Asian country. You will be appalled!

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