Monday, February 20, 2012

Wide Angle: Digital and the Death of Second-Run

An article? A "think piece"? An indulgent journal of an LA cinephile? It's all part of my non-reviews in 'Wide Angle'

There's a ritual conducted at the boutique multiplexes of Los Angeles that never ceases to amuse me. Before every screening, a chipper usher in a solid-color polo shirt will bound down to front row, center and welcome the audience, reciting the title, rating, and running time of the film you are about to see. Finally, this person will assure you that she will stand by for the first ten minutes to "ensure sound and picture quality." It's an earnest attempt to put a little of the human element into the theater. It's also a practice that's absurdly at odds with the current reality of how movies are shown, and it's indicative of just how much control consumers have lost in the public movie-going experience.

The last bit of the usher's spiel is the most telling, as these chic and luxurious facilities all feature the latest in digital projection technology, which replaces 35mm film stock with password-protected computer files and can be automated for days or weeks at a time. To see what I mean, do a little test next time you go to a theater with digital projection (this will be easy enough to find). Take a few peeks back at the projection booth during the show and see if you can spot any moving shadows or shuffling hands or any other signs of life up there. Once the domain of dedicated and skilled craftspeople, today's digital projection booth is a lonely place. A "set it and forget it" ethos has replaced what was a visible, human process: I'll still mark time during particularly boring movies on celluloid by looking for the sprocket holes that appear during each reel change.

I was thinking of this particular disconnect while reading film scholar David Bordwell's recent article on how digital technology is revolutionizing the movie exhibition business. (It's part of a larger series on the ramifications of digital film projection, a fascinating read in its entirety.) In a nutshell, movie theaters - and, by extension, their customers - are increasingly surrendering control of the screening process to distributors and projector manufacturers. It affects everything from the requisite technology to show films right down to the minutiae of when and how often a particular film may be screened. Bordwell notes that "the projectionist isn't the only ghost haunting the multiplex," but his metaphor is too kind: the forces behind the industry's impressment of digital exhibition are more like puppeteers manipulating the strings of a marionette.

This loss of control is troubling as it ultimately leads to the loss of choice. Recently I lamented the closing of the Culver Plaza Theater, a former Mann flagship that was resurrected as a second-run theater until the end of 2011. It was the latest domino toppled in a line that also included the Regency chain's budget-priced theaters in Redondo Beach and the Fairfax/Mid-City area (the latter ultimately done in by a roof collapse). In reality, these were more like 1.5-run theaters, mixing last month's big Hollywood releases with smart indie fare, limited-release oddities, and infamous cinematic orphans; I cherished Culver Plaza for giving me the opportunity to see Uwe Boll's Postal. I'm not going to pretend that these places were diamonds in the rough. They were sparingly cleaned, minimally staffed, and often in need of repair. They were cheap places to see a movie, period. What I am saying, though, is that they were the last remnants of a system that provided an increasingly rare service, and they deserved better.

Photo Credit: Hiltron Bailey

Our polo-shirted usher also symbolizes the class stratification that has taken place as we consolidate more screens in fewer buildings. As celluloid prints become scarcer, it takes immense financial resources to run a movie theater. The digital technology is prohibitively expensive for most smaller operations, and data tracking makes it more difficult to "split" a theater between two different prints or offer a more eclectic selection of non-Hollywood movies. Think of it this way: the leverage lost by the exhibitor is also leverage lost for the consumer. It hurts both the curious cinephile, subsidizing the arthouse arms race with its gourmet snack bars and cocktail lounges, and the budget-minded moviegoer, eschewing the theater and making it a Redbox night.

The current system has many advantages - reliability and cost-effectiveness chief among them - but I feel like future generations are losing something that's truly valuable. The first movie I ever saw (or so my parents tell me) was a reissue of the 1967 Disney-animated version of
The Jungle Book. I saw it at "The Movies" in Hellertown, Pennsylvania, a Streamline Moderne one-screener which was, at that point, the main theater serving a community of approximately 5,000 people. It was cleaner than a lot of cheapie theaters, but it was also the kind of place where the person working the concession register might also be selling tickets or running upstairs to start the projector. They would host birthday parties in a side room - I recall scarfing down pizza before seeing John Goodman mug his way through The Flintstones - and frequently held raffles after kiddie matinees. One lucky day I went home the proud owner of a pin bearing the smirking visage of Macaulay Culkin as Richie Rich.

Photo Credit: Josh Popichak

The Movies had the charm of a living museum and a staff that was directly engaged with the demands of its customers, even if they were demanding lukewarm adaptations of classic cartoons. It also had a leaky roof and outdated technology, and closed over a decade ago. By that point, a new 10-screen multiplex had opened just a few miles outside of Hellertown. I visited this place (which has itself shut down after losing its business to a bigger, sleeker, digitally-equipped gigaplex) a few years ago to see
Sherlock Holmes. Returning to the theater after a bathroom break, one of the employees asked me if I was enjoying the film, which had been playing at that location for two weeks.

He wanted to know, he said, because he had only ever seen the first ten minutes.

No comments:

Post a Comment