“From the moment the film began with the OVERTURE card depicting a horse-drawn carriage riding through snow in front of a stylized mountain range, Ennio Morricone’s big lush score creeping in, there was a problem. The carriage was in the center of the screen, towards the lower third of the image, and right there, almost framing the carriage, was a soft-focus spot that kept dilating in and out of focus.
The film played for two hours, until the intermission, and nothing changed. For the entire thing, that maddening focus issue continued. When the lights came up, I heard several people talking about it, puzzled why no one seemed to be doing anything about it. Eventually, someone announced that they would be showing the second half of the film via digital projection because the 70MM was no longer working.
How embarrassing is that?”
Even worse, especially for those hoping that “The Hateful Eight’s” exclusive two-week run on celluloid in a longer “roadshow” version would help steer venues back towards projecting film, is that when, after the longer version’s intermission, the 70mm was replaced by DCP, it looked, according to McWeeny, indisputably better. “Because the 70MM lens was simply not working right,” he writes, “that overall softness could not communicate the rich burnished-leather look of the film. In the fuzzy first half, many of the details of Minnie’s Haberdashery, the isolated mountain roadhouse where most of the film takes place, were lost in that vaguely focused background. In the second half, it felt like you could explore every corner of that amazing set, and it also brought all of those great faces into sharp focus. It really was night and day in all the most important ways.”
Many of the project 100ish venues that will be projecting “The Hateful Eight” in 70mm will be doing so for the first time, installing new (or refurbished) equipment at a cost of up to $80,000 per screen, and its likely the learning curve at some venues will be steeper than others. (It doesn’t instill confidence that the Weinstein Company is nearly three weeks overdue announcing exactly which theaters will be showing the 70mm version.) But suggesting that one bad screening, as McWeeny put in on Twitter, “hammer[s] the nails into the coffin of film as a distribution media,” is needlessly hyperbolic, just as it is when critics proclaim the inherent inferiority of DCP based on a single mishap. In decades of moving viewing, I’ve seen horrendous projection issues with every medium. I watched the 35mm print of “Memento” melt in the heat of the projector bulb just as the movie was reaching its climax; waited the better part of an hour for the projectionist to re-thread the final reel of “Hollow Man,” which had been put onto the platter upside-down; attended the abortive world premiere of “Borat,” which had to be canceled when a replacement projector part couldn’t be located in Toronto after midnight. I’ve seen DCP projected in the wrong aspect ratio, had screenings canceled because the encryption key was incorrect or didn’t arrive in time, or because the subtitles on a foreign-language film were absent or out of sync. Shit, as they say, happens.
What these problems share is that they have far less do with with the inherent superiority of flaws of any particular method of moving-image distribution than with the state of movie theater projection itself — which is, generally, terrible. As McWeeny notes, the ranks of experienced union projectionists have been decimated, and theaters in general put far less emphasis into the quality of the theatrical experience than they do into their concession snacks. Want to blow a young person’s mind? Tell them you remember when movies had ushers, flesh-and-blood employees whose actual job was to roam the aisles, shushing loud talkers and telling you to keep your feet off the seats. Now, even most art-house screenings are Thunderdomes, where the only person who’s looking out for the quality of your theatrical experience is you. If someone’s gabbing on their cell phone or eating stinky Thai food — not to mention if the movie’s out of focus or the house lights don’t dim — it’s up to you to find an employee who cares enough to remedy the situation, or handle it yourself.
Theatrical runs have an advantage over press screenings in that there’s room to course-correct: Even if theaters don’t get “The Hateful Eight” precisely right on opening night, they’ll have two weeks to fine-tune before the digital version rears its pixillated head. But press screenings have an ace in the hole, which is that critics love to complain. If the focus is soft or the sound goes out in the left rear channel, it’s a matter of seconds before some persnickety perfectionist goes running up the aisle to sound the alarm that something’s not right. (In the case of “The Hateful Eight’s” botched screening, the apparent culprit was a poor projector lens, a “known issue” the theater hasn’t bothered to correct.) I play the role of complainer whenever I can, whether I’ve paid for a ticket or not, but at regular commercial screenings, I sometimes wonder who would take the lead if I didn’t. Would anyone else care that the 3D in “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” wasn’t properly aligned, or would they just watch and figure the movie was supposed to look like that — or worse, not even care? Theaters have let the quality of projection deteriorate, but complacent audiences are the ones allowing them to get away with it.
If film projection is going to survive, it will be as a premium experience: the 180g vinyl to DCP’s Spotify. Although details of “The Hateful Eight’s” 70mm screenings haven’t been announced, it wouldn’t surprise me if theaters treat it as a special event, and price their tickets accordingly. It’s on theaters to hold up their end of the bargain, to show the medium in its best possible light. But it’s on theatergoers to make sure they follow through, to know what to look for and demand that they get it. Tarantino can help rally the troops, but it’s up to us to fight the battle, one glorious complaint at at time.