Watching a 70mm print of “Dunkirk” at Lincoln Center’s glorious Walter Reade theater was enough to make me want to pick up the baton and join Christopher Nolan’s fight to preserve the theatrical experience. Earlier this week, Nolan railed against Netflix in an interview with IndieWire, citing the company’s “mindless policy” with respect to theatrical distribution, and after seeing how the director masterfully envelopes the audience into his WWII drama, it’s hard to disagree with the idea that this great director’s work belongs on the big screen.
While it’s admirable that Warner Brothers backed Nolan’s efforts to make sure his dedicated fans have a first rate way of seeing the film – “Dunkirk” will be projected in 70mm and 70mm IMAX in over 100 screens this weekend – the problem is that a large majority of those buying a ticket at one of the other 3,500 theaters will experience a vastly inferior presentation of the film.
Those of us who work in the industry, and argue passionately for the primacy of the theatrical experience, have been spoiled by the opportunities at our disposal. Members of the media typically attend press screenings in which distributors and publicists make sure we have the best picture and sound. We go to premieres of films at festivals where the anticipation of the packed house brings an energy to the charged theater. In New York, there are flagship theaters with state-of-the-art equipment and a repertory renaissance that offers more 35mm prints in week than we can watch in a year.
But a few steps outside that bubble reveal the utterly poor quality of national theater chains. The screens are dim. The focus is never sharp; the wrong lens is being used at least 25 percent of the time. The image is masked incorrectly, cutting part of the frame out so the composition is off balance. And there is always at least one blown speaker that starts rattling every time the action scenes start to roar. Try to complain to a theater manager, or call the national chain’s customer service numbers, and they are more indifferent than a cable company – ironically, the other set of corporations Netflix has endangered.
The fault lies with two Netflix competitors: Hollywood studios and national theater chains. Hollywood’s embrace of digital cinema projection (DCP) – studios announced they would stop making prints in 2014 – was never about embracing technological advances in quality, it was about saving money. The amount of time, energy and expense of creating and shipping tens of thousands of 35mm prints around the world was astronomical. And when film projection disappeared, so did the union projectionists trained to insure our viewing experience was maximized.
Compare that to Netflix and the technology companies that make home theater panels, both of which are constantly pumping the latest technology into customer products that consistently get better every year. Netflix has been experimenting with streaming 4K for years and has even put such heavy technical demands on their original content that filmmakers wished they’d slow down as there’s some shows for which shooting 4K is a burden. Previews of the potential with HDR technology, which is only few years away from reaching affordable display panels, proves that the home entertainment’s renaissance is only going to continue to vastly improve; there’s little doubt that Netflix will be amongst the first content creators to embrace it.
I grew up going to movies with my father, but now I have to drag him to theater, because he’d prefer to stream a film to the $600 TV he bought at Costco. He’s not wrong: Compared to the theater chains in his neighborhood, his living room is the better option.
Netflix’s share of the home entertainment market has been propelled by making a more attractive product that comes with no ads. Meanwhile, show up 20 minutes early to claim a decent seat at Regal Cinemas and you’ll experience their nauseating FirstLook – a poorly-masked advertisement – blaring so loud you can’t maintain a conversation.
That’s not to say there aren’t amazing companies pushing the boundaries in technological advances in theater projection and sound. Whenever IMAX and Dolby showcase their incredible new products I’m blown away, but unfortunately that tech gets put into specialty theaters with increased ticket costs, which consistently gives opening box office numbers a nice bump. And specialty screens are perfect for Hollywood’s franchises films, built around their customers’ fanboy tendencies, with the message of “for few dollars more you’ll get the full experience.”
OK, but for $15, can’t I see the same movie projected properly?
My wife and I only recently started going to the movies again since our son was born, and the major reason is the opening of an Alamo Drafthouse near our Brooklyn apartment. And yes, we are parents on a babysitter schedule who enjoy the fact we can have a good beer and food while we watch a movie, but that’s not really the draw. Drafthouse owner Tim League is obsessive in the way he designs his theaters – huge screens, sight lines that allow you to be encompassed by the movie, perfect picture and sound, all monitored by a staff of film nerds who are more meticulous about the presentation than most people out there.
Alamo Drafthouse might be the gold standard, but is it so ridiculous to assume an enormous technology and consumer-based corporation, like a national theater chain, would put the best equipment into their theaters and make sure they have employees who can optimize its performance?
More importantly, where the hell are the studios, spending $150-200 million on films that promise visual effects spectacle, while our mainstream theaters are showing dark, muddy versions of their work?
With a vast majority of the first weekend’s box office getting kicked back to the studios and the constant elbowing required to get into international theaters, studios’ bottom line is about getting on as many screens as possible. Theaters and studios have a codependent relationship in which no one is insuring films are shown to the best of their ability.
As militant and mono-focused as Nolan sounds making the case for film vs. digital, the core of his message is not anti-technology, but rather how technology has been accepted as an excuse for Hollywood to put out an inferior product. He’s not wrong, but Netflix’s Ted Sarandos didn’t cause that, he’s exploiting it.
Until there’s a “Moviegoer’s Bill of Rights” or some set of reasonable standards enforced for each of the more than 3600 theaters showing “Dunkirk” this weekend, Netflix’s threat to theatrical experience will grow. Theaters and studios have only a few years to get their act together before HDR panels become a game-changer from which theaters won’t recover.