Super-sized screens, stadium seating, digital picture and sound, 3-D in its various formats -- we have seen so many improvements in the quality of motion picture presentation over the past few years. At their core, these upgrades have been necessary to compete with the incredible advancements in the technology of home theater systems, and the dogged determination of cinephiles to recreate the cinema experience at home...minus the sticky floors, crying babies, and idiots seated one row back who think their every observation is worthy of inclusion in the next Cahiers du cinema. But there is one problem that cinemas have had throughout my lifetime, and I confess it was something I thought had been dealt with given all the dollars recently invested in multiplex improvement, but since September I've encountered it a handful of times at three different theaters run by three different chains, and it shouldn't be tolerated, especially by horror film fans.
The problem is under-lit projecting, the refusal of some theaters to run their xenon bulbs at full strength and therefore create a light beam that illuminates the projected image in all its crisp, vivid glory. Ever since the 1960s, cinemas have been using projectors that encase xenon gas bulbs -- lamps that burn with a brilliance that rivals the candlepower of the sun. (Consider this - when burned at full power, you're able to see right through the silver "scratch and win" coating - the feature of many a state's lottery tickets - when held up to the aperture. Please don't ask me how I know this.) The bulbs are expensive critters, due primarily to the rarity of xenon gas. When turned all the way up to their maximum power, the average bulb has a lifespan of about 2000 projection hours. (They're also dangerous suckers. You don't want to be next to one when it cracks and explodes due to the highly-pressurized gas. Eyes have been lost.)
But, here's the scam. Some theaters double or triple the lifespan of a bulb by running it at a fraction of its capacity, thereby creating a projected image that is considerably dimmer, duller. As it turns out, many cinema patrons come to accept this quality of the picture, and even grow accustomed to it. ("Oh, that's just the way movies look at this theater, but don't they have the most delicious popcorn?") During the 1980s and 90s, when cinemas showed far more low-budget horror flicks than they do now - movies that were often under-lit without any additional help from the exhibitors - there were many times that films were rendered incomprehensible due to the murky shadows that threatened to digest the image. No less than Martin Scorsese has called this under-projecting the single biggest "crime" committed by theater owners, and has been known to travel with a light meter to cinemas showing his movies...and complaining loudly when the picture is dim.
Complaining is what all film fans should do. If you think that the picture you're seeing is too dark, it probably is, and deserves being called out. The projectionist showing the movies is surely just following orders; exhibitors are continually being pinched by the studios who return fewer and fewer receipts to the owners, and a decision to lower the xenon bulb wattage goes hand in hand with the higher cost of tickets and refreshments, low salaries for employees, and restrooms that don't get cleaned as often as they should. When it comes to picture quality, patrons will complain about focus, "out-of-frames," sound quality,* but a dull, under-lit picture is not a complaint that theaters hear everyday. For those culprits, they should. Let them know that you can see what's happening...or can't see, as the case may be.
* - Which brings up one more point. I have seen audiences sit in quiet sheeplike acceptance of some pretty grievous projection sins for long periods of time, either assuming A) that there is a projectionist who also sees the problem and is working on it, or B) that someone has gone to inform the management already, and there's no need for others to go. Let's clear this up right away - Gone are the days of the projectionist who monitored the movie as it ran. This is the era of automation, and your projectionist may be some high school kid who threaded up your movie, started it (just like he did the other 20+ films at your multiplex), and is now trying to score with the cute girl at concessions. If there's something wrong with the movie, get up and complain immediately. It may be a helluva hike, and you may have to hunt to find someone to alert, but that's the only way the problem will get fixed. Someone needs to develop a call button in the auditorium - that won't get abused - that lets the management know that something's amiss. Someone get on that, will ya?