We all love movies. We love watching them. We love talking about them. But let’s talk about how we are watching movies. After all these years of technological developments, the film theatre is still the best place to watch a movie. Everything looks bigger. The sound is louder. It’s a more immersive experience. But are we really watching these movies in the best possible way, the way makers intended us to see it? Not always. 

There are a lot of aspects involved, some may even feel unimportant or irrelevant. But they are important because cinema is not just art, it’s also a business. And we, the audiences, are a part of this business. We are the customers. But more often than not we’re being robbed of the movie experience we pay for – which can go as high as Rs 250 or more for a film like Race 3 – and here’s why.

Let’s Talk About Film Projection 

By film projection I mean projecting an image and its accompanying sound. Every theatre chain has to follow the standards of projection, laid down by Society of Motion Pictures and Television Engineers (SMPTE). These standards have made sure that even with fast-changing technology, a consistency is maintained in terms of projection of a film in every theatre. Not a lot of film theatres follow the standards religiously.

An industry-level projector lamp gives you around 15000 to 18000 hours of life if run at full efficiency. That’s around 4 years of life. But to squeeze as much life as possible from the projector, theatres run them at lesser luminosity. Something around 30%. Some theatres run it even at 50%.  

In Mumbai, where I live, there are more than a hundred movie theatres. Of those I have visited around 20% at least twice. The experience of watching movies has been quite varied and not necessarily in a good way. What varied the most is the projection quality. And when I mean projection, I am almost exclusively talking about 2D projection. 3D is a whole other beast.

The varying projection quality can be attributed to a simple reason – the durability of a projector. Or to be more specific, its lens. A regular multiplex screen, like PVR or Cinepolis runs an average 5 shows a day. If each movie averages around 2 hours in length, that’s 3600 hours of runtime for a projector lamp every year. An industry-level projector lamp gives you around 15000 to 18000 hours of life if run at full efficiency. That’s around 4 years of life. But to squeeze as much life as possible from the projector, theatres run them at lesser luminosity. Something around 30%. Some theatres run it even at 50%.

If I like a film very much I sometimes go for a second and/or a third viewing in different theatres. And the film looks different in different theatres. When I saw Newton in a PVR theatre in Citi Mall Andheri for the first time, the shots during the night felt dark but natural as they were supposed to. But when I went to PVR Juhu, I could barely make out actor’s faces in those same night shots. 

A similar incident happened during the screening of All the Money in the World. From the trailer it looked like a dimly lit movie with lots of shadows. But when I saw it on the big screen – again PVR Citi Mall – it was dark like the night sky. The images were of such high contrast that it felt someone had just applied bad Photoshop curves adjustment tool on it just before screening it.

I saw Jagga Jasoos four times in four different theatres. IMAX at Phoneix (Lower Parel), Cinepolis at Fun Republics (Andheri W), Cinepolis in Viviana Mall (Thane W) and PVR Citi Mall (Andheri W). And it looked different every time. Best was the IMAX. And because I had seen the IMAX one first, I could spot the difference easily in the other theatres. The one at Fun Republic had its brightness varying in between like a dimmer was left open. At Citi mall it looked washed out at its edges and the worst was the Viviana Mall. Saying the image was dark would be an understatement. And it wasn’t just the brightness. Even the colours looked desaturated. That beautiful school uniform of Ranbir which was supposed to be Forest Green was turned into Hunter Green.

Ever experienced a movie being so loud that it hurts your ears? That happens when projectionists crank the level up to 7.5 or 8. Padmavat at INOX Ghatkopar felt like someone was piercing the ears with sharp needles, whereas at Cinepolis Bhandup, it felt easy on ears.  

It’s Not Just Colour, Even The Sound Is Terrible 

The film at Cinepolis Viviana didn’t just look bad. It sounded awful as well. People could hardly make out dialogues. No wonder many ended up complaining to the staff after the screening. The sound is a whole different ballgame. 

Because Indian cinema chains do not follow any exhibition standards, filmmakers don’t mix their films to meet any nationwide standard. So it is no surprise movies sound different in different theatres. It is a general practice where distributors tell exhibitors at what level their movies should be played. Generally, 6.5 is the sweet spot. But some movies sound loud even at that level. Ever experienced a movie being so loud that it hurts your ears? That happens when projectionists crank the level up to 7.5 or 8. Padmavat at INOX Ghatkopar felt like someone was piercing the ears with sharp needles, whereas at Cinepolis Bhandup, it felt easy on ears.

Let’s Talk About 3 D

The difference in the quality of film exhibition can be well understood when compared with the best possible option. And that option is IMAX at Wadala. I saw Avengers – Infinity War there in IMAX 3D and it was a truly brilliant experience. The 3D looked immersive despite the loss of 35% luminosity and colour saturation, the sound gave me chills and of course, the screen size induced awe-inspiring imagery. One week later, I watched the same film in Cinepolis at the Fun Republic. It was like watching a whole different movie. The projection was already dim. Then the 3D glasses reduced the brightness to make the film dimmer than intended. The 3D induced headache. The sound was anything but heart pounding which is a clear result of the absence of enough bass in the sound system.

Why We Need Well-Trained Theatre Managers 

Now I am not blaming cinema chains like PVR or INOX or Cinepolis in particular, although I believe they should do better to maintain quality. The problem is spread across the exhibition chain, multiplex and single screen theatres. But the real problem lies with individual theatre managers and the lack of well-trained projectionists. Otherwise, how can do you justify Tumhari Sulu playing in 1.85 aspect ratio before the interval and in 2.35 aspect ratio post interval? Yes, I have experienced that more than once. During an afternoon show of The Shape of Water, the second half was played in 2.35 despite the film being in 1.85 aspect ratio. And it played like that till I didn’t complain to the floor manager that they are playing the movie wrong. Now I check on IMDB what ratio the original film is in just in case our projectionists play it wrong.

By the way, do you know that theatres have a provision in cases of non-widescreen movies? They are supposed to keep dark drapes hanging in front of the screen so that they are pulled to mask the non-projected visible, white part of the screen so that the audience doesn’t get distracted. I bet no cinema hall has done that in recent memory.

In fact, most projectionists seem to be clueless with the term aspect ratio. Vikramaditya Motwane recently complained about how PVR Cinemas shrunk the image size of Isle of Dogs to fit the subtitles.

It’s like you pay for a 32-inch television and then get a delivery of a 26-inch television. And the fact that these things are happening in 2018, when cinema chains are in direct competition with streaming services, implies only one thing – the cinema owners don’t care. They are making sure that your experience gets worse day by day through some really infuriating practices which I will speak about in some future piece.

Till then, keep an eye on the above-mentioned things. I understand many people go to movies just to have a good time. I do too. I am not a filmmaker nor do I belong to the film industry. But I am a consumer and I like to get what I pay for. And by the looks of things, theatre owners owe all of us a lot.

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