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July 2007

I know. I haven't done much with the site or my (still upcoming) podcast since April and here we are in July. I'm not going to make excuses. I'll just say that rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated. :)

Back in January I posted a letter from Carrie, who's a regular visitor to the site, that she directed to her local theatre manager with respect to the incorrect, aspect ratio settings at her local theatre. Unfortunately, this appears to be a common practice, or at least a practice that might be gaining some popularity.

Stephen Hill is a former projectionist from Edmonton, Alberta (Canada) and backs up Carrie's statements.

As a former projectionist, I read your January commentary with great interest. This is what typically happens when you send the popcorn girl into the projection booth and she has no clue what she's doing. I'm sad to say that I imagine this problem will only get worse as theatres gradually all shift over to digital projection. The theatre I worked in was a 14 screen multiplex in Edmonton, AB. It was all film, with a collection of old Cinemeccanica Victoria 8s as projectors, with updated lenses and lamphouses. The reason I mention this is that this theatre, which opened in 2003, had all constant width screens, rather than constant height. The masking on the screen was north and south and would close in for 2.35:1 films (or 'scope', as they are referred to in the trade). I lost count of how many times I would get complaints about the projection (I didn't always work in the booth; sometimes I was forced to usher), because the person in the booth didn't know what he was doing (improper framing, scope lenses being used on a 'flat' film). I take no small amount of pride in the fact that my manager at the time insisted on scheduling me in the booth on the evening weekend shows because he knew that less things were likely to go wrong if I was working on these busiest nights of the week.

It boils down to the fact that theatre owners are notoriously cheap. Why? Because the studios continue to demand more and more of the initial box office take. That's why concession prices are so high, and that's also why theatre owners are constantly looking for ways to cut costs. Digital may be seen as the means to this end, as the theatre owners will no longer require a trained projectionist to assemble the film on the platter. They will be able to get one of the high school kids who work in other parts of the theatre just to "keep an eye on things" and frankly, these kids don't care about presentation quality. I'm sad to say that what Carrie describes is a harbinger of the future.

Thanks to Stephen for the insight. This is particularly interesting to me because at the theatre where I used to work, we were the exact opposite: a flick of a switch would move the curtains on the sides of the screen to either their 2.35:1 or 1.85:1 width with a fixed height. That is how widescreen is supposed to be and why widescreen was invented to give a wider view; to take up more of your visual perceptions. Unfortunately, it looks like newer theatres are taking more of a Super35 approach by cropping off the top and bottom and retaining the width.

Very sad news indeed.

Still Pushing P&S

Another guest, Mark, asked the following question: With the current proliferation of widescreen TV's, do you know why the premier movie channels continue to air most of their programming in full screen?

The simple answer is that there are still far, far more legacy TVs in 4:3 than there are new, 16:9 TVs. Although 16:9 and true HD TVs have plummeted in price, they are still considered to be a luxury. If you are privileged enough to be able to afford a good, 16:9 TV, that's great! But most people really don't care, are not interested, or cannot afford a 16:9 TV, especially when 32" (83cm), 4:3 TVs can be found for less than US$300. That is still a very satisfactory TV size for many people. (Don't get me started about how those same people will turn into fanboys and pay $600 for that phone that was released recently, though.)

I obviously don't have any hard numbers and I doubt that there are any, but I believe that the number of 4:3 TVs out there, especially in the U.S., vastly outnumber the 16:9 TVs. The movie channels know that, and they always try to play it safe by pandering to the lowest, common denominator.

On the flip side, it has come to my attention recently that most of the HD channels that used to crop 2.35:1 movies to 16:9 apparently are not doing that. HBO HD was notorious for doing this, but I've had several people saying that they show their movies in the correct aspect ratio. A small victory, perhaps, but it's a step in the right direction.

Until next time...!