No Whistles, No Bells, Just the Basics

There’s too much talk on the premium experience, and not enough focus on the standard, argues CTC’s Toni Purvis as she ponders presentation. The latest technology is all very well, but if you can’t get the basics right, then why bother with the whistles and bells?


IT’S AN EXCITING TIME for cinema. It’s almost as though we’ve managed to get through a decade of digital and the big question now is ‘What can we do next?’ It appears anything is possible, from 120fps per eye 3D, to wonderfully immersive object-based audio. Now we’re seeing HDR on the market, chairs that move, air vents that blow wind in our faces, on purpose no less, and aspect ratios that we haven’t seen for a long old time finding their place in the modern digital world.

The luxury feel of real (or fake) leather
In addition to the technology, we are finding ourselves on leather (or faux-leather if the fan base includes the animal conscious population) reclining seats, with gourmet burgers and a glass of champagne being delivered to us, without even having to move. All of this combined leads us into the realm of the ‘Premium Experience’. Of course, there are many other ingredients that could be added into the recipe, but that would take me over the word count {Ed: Quite right.].

My quarrel here is that it’s all well and good having the newest, shiniest, fanciest sound and projection equipment, combined with chairs that we can melt into, but what good is it if the basic requirements of cinema are not met?

Over the past year, we’ve seen the same old topics rear their head as influential celebrity figures take to social media to criticise their local cinema experiences. ‘It’s not bright enough’ and ‘It’s too loud’. These are two fundamentals of cinema. These are also the two things that every guest is going to notice if they’re not right. You don’t need to be a technical genius to tell that there’s something wrong when your ears are bleeding and you’re scheduling an emergency optician’s appointment.

Before I offend all cinema owners, I’d just like to point out that I am generalising… but I will continue to do so. By not presenting a film correctly, we’re doing a disservice to our clientele who are paying for the privilege, as well as a disservice to the filmmakers and the teams that get the films to the screen.

Just hit play, right? Wrong…
When a film is created, from conception to finished DCP, every single detail is considered. The filmmaking process is incredibly extensive, time-consuming and its vital to achieve the work of art we all await in anticipation. Unfortunately, in my experience, the intended level of quality is very rarely replicated in the everyday cinema.

I find this very disappointing, as I’m sure filmmakers also do. A visual effect, or a subtle but deliberate sound on the left channel can be lost if the theatre is not correctly set up. These are details that have been put there on purpose, a creative decision to enhance the storyline or evoke some emotion. Next time you ingest a feature, take a look at the CTT, and see if it has any tell-tale signs of which version it is, because you can bet your bottom dollar it’s not the first. Each version will have tweaks to the VFX, or the print master, or indeed may contain a completely different scene from the last. Perhaps if we were all aware of the painstaking lengths the production and post-production teams go to, before the general public sees the next big thing on the big screen, we might all put a little more effort into its presentation.

It can be argued that presentation and the ‘magic of cinema’ got hit pretty hard with the digital revolution. Tabs and masking became isolated, pageants barely used, and automation became king. Floor staff became expected to set up the projection booths, which in the earlier years did involve going into the booths and flipping the odd switch at least. Now we don’t even need to do that. Technology has enabled us to set up our equipment from the comfort of our office chair, or the kiosk. Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m all for technology making life easier, but just because we no longer have people dedicated to sound and projection, does not mean that standards should slip.

‘So what’s the answer?’, I hear you cry. Well, in my opinion, with new technology should come new ways of working and new responsibilities that take into account the fact that there’s not always someone sitting upstairs monitoring the screens. To make this all happen seamlessly, we need to ensure all involved from front door to auditorium are instructed correctly, and trained. There is nothing worse than being expected to do a task when you have no idea how to do it, even in a world where YouTube is our oracle. It could lead to team members being disinterested and uninvested in the quality, which is definitely something we want to avoid when showing films is the primary purpose of the cinema.

Of course, we all understand that there are budgets to be met, and other jobs that need to be done which help to increase the daily revenue, but we must not forget that the customer is there first and foremost, to see the film. I personally don’t go to the cinema simply to buy the popcorn (salted of course). The popcorn is my secondary focus.

So get the troops on the ground aware of what they should be looking for and listening to, and half the battle has been won. The other half of the battle is having an engineering team or integrator available when our trained and trusted floor staff notice a problem that’s outside of the realm of the fader, or bulb replacement. Get those two nailed, and there’ll be no looking back!

You’ve got it right? Then go shopping
Once the standard projection requirements have been met, and we have a wonderful 2D, Scope, 14ft/l picture, with a well-balanced 5.1 audio calibration specific to each of our auditoria, maybe then it is time to up the game and bring in the motion chairs, object-based audio systems, ginormous screens, and additional content on the side walls. Get the basics right, and the rest will fall into place. We should learn to walk before entering into the 100m Olympic sprint. Oh, and if at all possible, let’s leave the burgers in the restaurant area — I’ll take the champagne through, though.