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The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex

Tuesday 6 September 2011, 17:35

Mark Kermode Mark Kermode

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In this piece for the Culture Show I meet one of a dying breed - a projectionist - and also brave the local multiplex. Good? Bad? Let me know what you think of cineplexes.

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Related Posts on Kermode Uncut
The Moviegoers Code Of Conduct

Hear Mark Kermode review the week's new films every Friday from 2pm on BBC Radio 5 live. Kermode & Mayo's Film Review is also available as a free podcast to download and keep.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Terrifically done, Sir!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I've stopped going to see movies in those multiplexes, mostly because they don't show any movies that I actually want to see, or are worth the money. I stopped almost as soon as or some time after the cinema that had been there for over 75 years, closed down and was reduced to rubble.

    That place was great, it had an atmosphere, it was part of the town's history and they had projectionists and ushers, ushers who did tell kids off... And I didn't mind that the The X Files (Fight The Future) movie suddenly stopped, turned upside down and started going backwards. The problem was sorted in 5 minutes... because there was a PERSON on hand to sort it out. And it's a memory that has stuck with me and I always smile when remembering it. :-) I also saw The Exorcist in there, I was the only person in the theatre on a very windy day, the wind was so strong it was blowing through the building causing the doors to bang, it added to the experience.

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    Comment number 3.

    Finally, somebody has drawn attention to this issue of 'the invisible projectionist', nice one Mark!

    I'll hereby like to name and shame one particular cinema, Odeon Tunbridge Wells, as being a terrible example of said invisibility with it's regularly uncorrected anamorphic projections. THEY DRIVE ME INSANE!

    In 2010 I was witness to four separate screenings where the audience just sat, angrily shouting out, to an evidently invisible projectionist, that something was wrong with the picture. Each time this has been the dreaded uncorrected 2.35.1 aspect ratio -or 'stretchy heads' as termed by regulars at this particular Odeon.

    Despite complaints, this year has seen at least another three occasions of this problem reoccurring. It's clearly all down to 'the invisible projectionist' syndrome, and at £8.50 for a standard priced seat, it's a bloody outrage!

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    Comment number 4.

    A praiseworthy campaign, though the errors you described are far more likely to be attributable to a (negligent) projectionist using a traditional 35mm projector than an automated digital machine gone awry. You're pretty dang unlikely to get a rack in a Digital projector, have the film spooled incorrectly (or alternating reels joined wrongly), or miss a lens change. You're far more likely to have no sound or the screen masking fail to resize, however. Don't get me wrong, however, I was a projectionist for some time at an independent cinema and support your idea. The problem comes when there is a mix of 35mm & digital screenings in a theatre and staffing levels only commensurate with all digital screenings.

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    Comment number 5.

    Having read the book I was astonished to see that I wasn't the only person to be told "well no one's complaining" about the focus or sound or a section of picture spilling over - as if to say I am not someone but something less.

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    Comment number 6.

    I always thought that the one possible appropriate use of a mobile phone in a cinema would be if you could call a direct line to the projectionist booth to tell them to fix the sound/aspect ratio/framing/broken film/pull the curtain aside, etc. With no one there, a computer will be in charge now, perhaps the audience should have a giant mouse with which to click on:

    [You have clicked on 'Help' to indicate that there is ]
    [a problem with this screening. Do you require.......]

    [There is a problem with the following:___________]
    [Click all that apply:__________________________]

    [To continue the screening please enter the_____]
    [25 digit license key__________________________]
    [and the 10 digit real time encryption pass key___]
    [Then click on "OK"__________________________]

    ... and so on. How any corporate moron with the least experience of using technology could find economy in removing the overseeing eyes of a projectionist, regardless of which projection tech is in use, is mind boggling. The real conclusion is that once they have your money and you're through the door. They. Don't. Care.

    Supporting independent cinema is well and good, but that sidesteps fixing the viewing problem for everyone. Given the ever higher prices of tickets the multiplex operators need to deliver a quality product, the films projected in optimum fashion. I have had my involvement with a film unduly shattered not just by poor projection, or by other inconsiderate patrons, but by the simplest of things, a dirty smudged screen. In the end we need to empower people to demand refunds for poor screening, the only motivation for change is economic. Otherwise the home cinema will sadly become "the way movies were meant to be seen".

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    Comment number 7.

    I frequent both multiplexes (think Odeon Leicester Square) and smaller joints (like Birmingham's Electric Cinema, or Richmond's Curzon) and have seen films on both digital and 35mm projectors, and I've never experienced faulty image problems with either; I must be pretty lucky?

    In 2004/05, when I worked for UGC Cinemas (now known as Cineworld), I was ecstatic because they held a Japanese film festival one month and I was exposed to a whole range of beautiful, fantastic movies that I would never have heard of otherwise, so I'm not convinced that multiplexes are all bad.

    I agree that some people in the theatre need to shut the hell up and stop ruining other people's enjoyment of the movie with their bright mobile phone screens, though.

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    Comment number 8.

    I've enjoyed your book/200 page + rant. However Graham Chapman on Amazon didn't. Did that meeting, in the chapter in which you revealed your crush on Zac Efron, with the gormless teen at the ticket desk really happen? He seems too stupid for it be true. It’s not that Odeon and VUE do not show films that do not interest me but the lack any range of films they show. Screens are dominated by Transformers and the next superhero movie. They are normally tedious blockbusters however I am looking forward to that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy film though. On the topic of bad projections and irritating audiences I’ve never experienced any of the horror stories that others have had while in the cinema, possibly I don’t go enough.

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    Comment number 9.

    I've had two negative experiences recently in the multiplex.

    The first was while watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2. Anyone who's seen the film will know it starts off VERY quietly, with scenes of dialogue and dramatic exposition (largely thanks a welcome appearance by the great John Hurt). Well, in the cinema where I was watching this, someone's mobile phone went off. There were the usual annoyed grunts from across the screen but then to everyone's astoundment, the person answered and began a conversation! It wasn't even, "I'm in the cinema, I'll call you back," it was a full-blown chat which just went on and on and on.

    I got up and made for the exit to report this blatant breach of the Code of Conduct but a friend touched my arm and whispered, "Just wait a sec, they'll stop soon." They didn't. They carried on talking. The audacity and sheer rudeness of it all was incredible. I charged out, heads turning to regard me as I went, and grabbed the nearest bored-looking staff member. To his credit he did come in to the screen and watch the audience but by then the person had stopped. I had missed a few minutes of one of the most exciting parts of the film, however.

    Another less-annoying experience was watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes. One of the speakers was hissing, not noticeable at all during the louder scenes but since most of the film was quiet dialogue, it was quite intrusive. My friend went to report this to the staff and they said they'd check it out. They didn't.

    A projectionist wouldn't have solved either of these but if members of the public actually turned of their freaking mobile phones in case 1, and staff used another screen instead in case 2, both my cinema experiences would have been perfect. And that's all I ask when I pay £7.50 per ticket.

    I'm reading your new book now Mark and I'm loving it so far. I wish I could read out the chapter on 3D to everyone I know, non-stop, until they completely agree with me about the superfluousness of it all (they all agree with me that it ruins the drama of a film, but some say it is fun for kids.... grrr).

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    Comment number 10.

    As a person working in a "independent" cinema ( European,art house etc ) I can't tell you how right you are in relation to the problems caused by the absence of a qualified projectionist. Only last night did our new server/ digital projector decide to stop working half through The skin I live in. 41 angry customers and a lot of apologizing later I started to reminisce the days of a skilled projectionist. Thats only one example of a long list of problems. On a slightly different subject one of my and fellow colleagues concerns of late is in the hijacking of alternative cinema by Opera, theatre, ballet live shows. Huge areas of programing time has been taken up by these events along with their repeated shows. They tend to attract a very small section of moneyed society. Ive no real problem with this but film, Q and A's cinema related events have suffered greatly. I can understand why we do them but working in a cinema aint what i used to be.

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    Comment number 11.

    I have lived in Japan now for 8 years and have been to the cinema almost every week in that time... and I can honestly say that I have not experienced a SINGLE problem with the image or sound, in any cinema, big or small, in all that time. Not only that but the Japanese audiences are UTTERLY silent throughout every single film that I have ever seen. (Not including comedies) I have never once been to a noisy cinema with people talking all over the film. Not ONCE in eight years at any time of the day. This makes me wonder if it is a regional problem and as a result a (relatively) simple issue with regards to worker competence, effort and the general public's perception and respect with regards to his/her fellow man/woman in the cinema.

    The Japanese, no matter what they are doing, they will do that job well. From convenience store clerk to the workers in the MANY multiplex cinemas here, they just get on with it and they dont make mistakes. So the films are always projected correctly and the sound is always good. Of course, Im SURE that every now and then stuff happens but it has never happened to me.

    I think that there is no EASY solution to this in the west. But if there is not a problem in the vast majority of Japanese Multiplex cinemas then there is no reason why there should be any problem in the western ones either. It is quite hard for me to imagine having the problems that English cinemas seem to have! Mark, if you ever come to Japan I hope that I can take you to one of the local multiplexes that I go to so you can see the difference... The only problem that we have here in Japan with regards to movies... is that they always come out about four months late...

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    Comment number 12.

    When I volunteered for the Leeds International Film Festival, there were SEVERAL malfunctions at the VUE cinema's screenings which were only rectified because us volunteers were on hand to let the staff know. Having said that, the digital projection at the Hyde Park Picture House was a bit iffy when they first installed it too - the contrast was all wrong, like the screen was tilted at the wrong angle or something. I think they've sorted it out now, though. I can't stay angry at the HPPH, it's such a glorious old cinema. The Broadway in Nottingham is exceptional too of course. It's a shame the Screen Room (Britain's smallest cinema) had to close, though - it had a great atmosphere and was brilliant if you'd missed a film's first run, because they always got the prints later.

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    Comment number 13.

    It's classic short-termism. Pushing up the profits by degrading the experience means that, with large HD-TVs becoming more affordable and ubiquitous, in the long run people will increasingly wait for the Blu-ray. To be honest, with the price of a ticket and the quality of most local cinemas, it's often something I'm tempted to do already.

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    Comment number 14.

    Sigh, sounds so fun, but those of us stateside can't watch it.

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    Comment number 15.

    I totally agree. While 35mm projection too has its problems, and digital projection has many benefits, I don't think we should entirely do away with people manning these systems.

    My local multiplex has 13 screens: two levels of six screens each, with a smaller screen elsewhere in the building. I was given a tour of one of the projection booths; this one booth caters for six screens, it's huge! As I walked through (in what felt like a Doctor Who scene with all the darkness and flashing lights), I could see the films playing through the windows either side of me. There was another of these booths upstairs.

    Now, all they would need is a projectionist per booth who cared enough to spend their (paid) time walking down each side, looking through the windows and ensuring the films were running okay, and fixing any problems that ensued.

    Oh, and that's another thing - I was given the tour by a manager, and apart from us, the booth was empty. All 6 screens were up and running, but there was no sign of a projectionist. Really?

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    Comment number 16.

    I heard a bit of Mark being interviewed by Richard Bacon this afternoon regarding the role of projectionists, and while I've heard him reiterate his points many times with Simon, he hit the nail right on the head. Bacon's point was that digitisation, mechanisation has always been with us; it's progress. But Mark's point was that regardless, we will still need a human being to check on it. In the same way that if you're watching a DVD (Mark actually used this analogy) and something goes wrong with it, it doesn't eject itself or put itself back on the shelf. It requires human input. It requires a human mind to oversee the process, and make adjustments accordingly. And citing two examples of just how badly digital projection can go wrong, in two different and supposedly high-tech cinemas in London, he well and truly made the case.

    Even though I speak as someone who hasn't been to the cinema since '96, I find it utterly ludicrous that apparently millions of people are happy to go to watch a film which is being shown upside-down, off centre, too dark, or at the wrong ratio, without saying a word. If this were any other product or service, you'd all be lining up to demand your money back. You'd be on Watchdog telling Anne Robinson how miserable the service is and that you demand recompense! What the hell is wrong with you people? You've allowed it to get this bad. You can very easily vote with your feet, stay away from the cinemas and bring the industry crashing down, until they see sense. Just imagine: hundreds of cinema-goers staging a sit-in, refusing to leave, demanding a refund for the incompetence they had to endure. That'd get their attention.

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    Comment number 17.

    The multiplex promised greater choice in more modern surroundings, but instead we have the same mass appeal blockbusters on multiple screens with scant regard for ensuring a pleasant experience for the audience. You shuffle into the brightly lit foyer & after the self service ticket machines reject your card for the 3rd time you go to buy a ticket, not from a dedicated box office but from the refreshments counter, then someone rips your ticket & lazily points you in the general direction of your chosen screen, you stumble around in the dark trying to find your seat guided only by the light of your mobile & all that before you have to endure fellow patrons talking, or the ringing of their mobiles, or kicking the back of your seat etc . & why? Because going to the movies is not seen as an event any more, people treat it like watching telly at home. Is it any wonder when it has become such a bland experience with staff that don’t give a damn about their patrons? It’s no surprise that people are resorting to downloading films & watching them in the comfort of their own homes on high end home cinema equipment. I remember the good old days of usherettes, where films had an interval!! One memorable example being Dances With Wolves, after a Native American chap had taken a bite out of a buffalo heart it was time for the interval & we strolled down to the front to buy Kiaora & ice cream with those little wooden spoons.

    This sounds like someone banging on about the good old days. But it’s simply about wanting cinema to be an experience like it should be. Why can we only find this experience in independent cinemas? The multiplexes should be offering this rather than being just a big neon machine that smells of dubious meat tubes & sugar soaked beverages where people are herded in one end &, after two hours of loud explosions (in 3D), spat out the other!

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    Comment number 18.

    #11 Size,

    Unfortunately, you may have a point. If indeed the Japanese can do it without the kinds of problems we do, then that perhaps suggests that - like everything else these days in the wake of the recent riots - it comes down to respect, etiquette, politeness, manners, and up-bringing. It could just be a cultural problem behind this, rather than a technological problem. In which case, I don't know how we fix it, given that our cultural problems take generations to materialise.

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    Comment number 19.

    #14 Mike,

    Well, we get the same problem when trying to watch clips of The Daily Show and other shows from the States on-line. Americans don't pay the BBC Licence Fee. It's just the way it is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I payed nine dollars to see Midnight in Paris at my local multiplex theater, one of the most popular ones in my city. The screen was fuzzy, the sound was muffled and the theater was drafty. The only way to see a proper looking film there is to go to a digital projection showing for 5 dollars more. Suffice to say, I got my nine bucks back and I'm never going back there again.


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Outspoken, opinionated and never lost for words, Mark is the UK's leading film critic.

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