We have had quite a number of postings on this Blog that take the multiplex sector to task. So it seems only fair to give any company credit for positive innovation. Recently the Vue chain has added an additional page of information on its websites:
Here are your 4K films and times.
It is reached by a link on the right hand side of the ‘What’s on’ page, under ‘narrow your search’ and ‘sony 4K’. This is good news because it struck me a long time ago that it was rather frustrating to read adverts about 4K projection when there was no equivalent information about the DCPs which were source.
However, this addition also points up the really stingy approach of the distribution and exhibitions sectors – the next 4K DCP is, apparently, the film advertised at the top and only due on September 29th 2015 and for a single screening.
The most that can be hoped for, I suppose, is that some other exhibitors might follow Vue’s example. Then at least we will know about the few higher standard screenings available.
A couple of weeks ago I was in a multiplex. It was one of those chains where they force you to buy a ticket for your seat at the same time as they try to force concessions down your throat. The woman in front of me had a small child who pestered her (no, that’s unfair, she asked nicely) for something to eat and something to drink. This took several minutes while the counter clerk scurried between various sticky gadgets squeezing out different kinds of junk. One particular machine was on the blink and the operation had to be repeated several times. In the meantime, feeling restless I tried to move my feet only to find them stuck to the floor. The woman protested to the poor girl behind the counter who explained she’d mopped the floor twice but someone else must have spilt cola. Eventually the woman got her tickets – an adult and a child for an early Saturday evening showing of Jurassic World. The total cost for the ticket and concessions was nearly £31. I’m guessing the tickets cost £13 or £14 for the two, including a premium to see a new film on the opening weekend. That means around £18 was spent on popcorn, cola and something else I couldn’t see. Eventually we all prized our feet from the floor and I paid £15 for two Senior tickets (this was Scotland not London – but still more expensive than Bradford) to see Spy.
This was a small 8 screen multiplex. The auditorium was healthily filled at around 60% for an 18.00 hours screening. It was clean, the seats were comfortable, the projection was fine and we enjoyed the film. Everyone behaved well and no phones went off. It was a pleasurable visit marred only by the wait to buy a ticket and the sticky floor. My real problem is with the pricing policies, the crap food and drink and the treatment of punters at the counter (for which I don’t blame the staff). This little incident underlines the fact that the chains make half their profit from popcorn and it doesn’t really matter what they show as long as people come – and they buy concessions.
At around £8 average for a standard ticket (going up to £15-17 in some parts of London’s West End) the UK now has some of the highest ticket prices in the world. The premiums for 3D, new films etc. are a rip-off. The chains should be thinking of lowering prices to bring audiences back. Cinema is not the worst entertainment offender on pricing. Back in the 1960s, when cinema was still a mass entertainment form in the UK, three things that working-class youth liked to spend its wages on all cost more or less the same. A First Division football match, a stalls seat in the cinema and a pint of beer all cost between ‘One and nine’ and ‘half a crown’ (8p and 12.5p – most young people earned less than £15 a week). The equivalent now might be £30-£50 for the Premier League, £8 for a cinema ticket and £3.50 (or less) for a pint. And we thought it was the brewers who were screwing us!
I don’t like the popcorn cinemas sell. But I recognise that people enjoy it. The real gripe is the amount of sugar, fat and salt in it and the ‘supersize me’ portions. Mostly these are too big and quite a lot of it gets left on the cinema floor. The other gripe is that the punters are being royally duped. They pay pounds for a foodstuff that costs pennies. The chains have to make a profit but film culture would be much healthier if the profits came because of high demand for films that people really want to see. In the current business model that isn’t the case. Admissions in the UK (and the US) are not rising, even though the population is growing. The exhibition sector is heading for the buffers unless it can attract more admissions.
The specialised sector is just as bad. The ticket prices are, in the newer cinemas, even higher and the emphasis is still on food and drink even if it is marginally more healthy food. The Everyman chain seems to be the worst offender in the UK. As one friend told me after being enticed into the Everyman in Leeds, it took him some time to realise that, yes it was a cinema, not a restaurant. I ought to write something about this outfit. Much of my film education was spent in the Everyman in Hampstead, one of the best repertory cinemas the UK has ever seen. The new owners from 2000 have taken the brand and created a chain of new and ‘acquired’ ’boutique cinemas’. The chain claims to be reviving ‘independent cinema’ but as far as I can see shows mainly Hollywood films and live theatre. It advertises its menus alongside its film titles and seems more interested in promoting armchairs and access to bars than anything to do with film culture. Some of the cinemas it acquired include those revived in the 1970s by Romaine Hart including the Screen on the Green in Islington and the Screen on the Hill at Belsize Park (see Anne Billson’s blog for a little entertaining history of the cinema built on the site of the Haverstock Hill Odeon). Now Everyman has got its hands on the great old Odeon at Muswell Hill. These are some of the most important cinemas in my viewing memories – I feel violated in some way. If you have an independent cinema near you, make sure you support it and try to keep it out of the hands of a chain.
I don’t like watching films on a TV screen so my fears about exhibitors are disturbing on a fundamental level. Fortunately for me there is one example of a publicly-funded local independent where with tons of leg-room, a proper mug of tea, a slice of cake and an eclectic film programme, I can really relax and watch a film on a big screen at a very reasonable price. Long may the Hebden Bridge Picture House (not part of the Picturehouses chain) thrive.
In a recent screening at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum I enjoyed a trailer for a re-issue of the UK classic The Long Good Friday (1980). This re-issue is to mark the 35th anniversary of the film’s release. I thought the trailer was pretty well done. If you have seen the film before then the clips reminded one of some of the great action and dramatic sequences in the film. However if you have not seen this film before then I thought that the film did not pre-empt viewings in the unfortunate way that so many contemporary trailers do.
But the final onscreen title in the trailer spoilt my pleasure
‘exclusive 2K restoration’.
We have an increasing number of venues in the UK that advertise 4K projection, though they are not always as informative about whether films come in a 4K DCP. And we have enjoyed an increasing number of classic films restored using 4K technology [or even higher]. 4K cameras are becoming increasingly common in film production – I was fortunate have a cinematographer show me such a camera during a filming out our own Hyde Park Picture House.
Despite all of this the cheapskates in the UK distribution sector persists in using 2K technology. I would be interested to hear from film buffs in other countries as to what the standards are there. Certainly whilst there are still quite few cinemas in the UK which only have 2K projection the technology allows them to source from 4K DCPs.
I remember in the early days of digital projection frequently hearing exhibitors and distributors claiming that digital
‘looked better than film’.
Given that the vast majority of film then originated on 35mm this was an oxymoron – there is a contradiction between the use of ‘better’ and different formats that are incommensurable. One image is composed of silver halide grain the other of pixels. I am always annoyed by reviews that claim that a film is ‘better’ than the original literary work. The critic may find the film more enjoyable, and some viewers may prefer the characteristics of digital; that is not the same thing.
The more recent items of rhetoric from exhibitors and distributors are
‘the screen is not large enough for 4K or the viewing angles in the auditorium are insufficient for 4K’.
I have yet to hear an convincing explanation for these claims. Certainly Torkell Saetervadet, in the FIAF Digital Projection Guide, takes this and a several accompanying arguments to task,.
‘The numbers [set out in a diagram] indicate, though, that the 4K format is much closer to the ideal cinema than 2K ..’
Another claim is that audiences ‘don’t notice’. There may be some truth in this but the claim is difficult to determine. For a start mainstream film nearly always privileges action and character over technique: the invisible style. And prior to the arrival of video the comparisons were between different celluloid formats or between nitrate and safety film stock. Now the comparisons may be between analogue video, DVD, Blu-Ray, other formats and DCPs. Of course, the DCP technology is a form of video itself. But the standards are higher than other forms, and the effectiveness of the format is constantly developing. indeed one of the developments is from 2K to 4K to 6K, and soon 7 or 8K.
Further there is a larger problem with Digital standards. I have noticed recently that there frequently appears to be variation in aspect ratios, even when they are supposed to be in New Academy. And this does not seem to be just a projection problem. It is worth noting that the Arriflex Alexa has a range of settings for aspects ratios, but that the standard one seems to be 16:9, not even a cinematic ratio.
There also seem to be problems with digital sound, an area where the technology has bought undoubted improvement. But I find that modern soundtracks often lacks balance: the prime example would be Interstellar (2014), where the director publically defended its disparities.
Clearly it is not feasible to press for a return to uniform celluloid projection. However, the distributors could be more effective in making 35mm available, at least to a degree. But there need to be higher standards in the digital sphere. The standards were initially set down by the Hollywood Academy. The failings of the original standardisation are apparent from the question of frame rates – initially including 24fps, 25 fps, and 48 fps. The extension of these frame rates mean that now 2K has a wider variation available than 4K. So the standards included the facility of video playback but not proper digital playback of early film. FIAF has now addressed this point with specifications for rates from 16 to 24 fps. But hardly anywhere in the UK can one find digital versions played at the frame rate of the original early film. This despite a projectionist explaining to me that the conversions were relatively simple.
Finally there is the question of archiving. There is no convincing evidence about the life span for digital: and changing formats are also increasingly a problem. Yet it seems that some distributors and stores are only retaining digital copies even when the original was celluloid. The prospects for future generations appear problematic. Archivists reckon that only a third of early film, shot on nitrate, survives. The explanation was the absence of an archival process in those years. We may well arrive at a situation where the same is true of sound nitrate and safety stock films.
Last Friday I found myself in Leeds city centre with several hours to fill. I wanted to participate in a Palestinian Solidarity Group demonstration for the 67th anniversary of the ‘nakba’: which did not start to 5 p.m. I have to say that there was not a great selection of films available last week. The Vue in the Leeds Light was screening Mad Max: Fury Road, just released. The Guardian review awarded it four stars, though I also noted that it suggested that the film had a very loud soundtrack. So I took the precaution of purchasing a set of ear plugs: a wise precaution as it turned out.
At the Vue I found myself just behind five people in the queue. However, they had to buy any food at the same time as their tickets. So by the time I reached the ticket position there were now about two dozen people in the queue behind me. The ticket cost me £1.50p more than usual. When I queried this I was told that it was ‘dynamic marketing’. When asked what that meant I was told that this was because it was a popular film: we ended up with about forty punters in the auditorium!
Since it is not possible to determine exactly how long the adverts and trailers run there I caught some of the former. They were as naff as usual. They also included ‘cineme’; which encourages audience members to use their mobile phones and tablets to answer quiz questions. However, there was no subsequent warning to switch them off again. The trailers included two for a forthcoming release, San Andreas. The title suggests the plot-line: I am surprised that it has taken so long since the advent of CGI and 3D to get round to this treatment. When the feature started, in 2.39:1, there was no appropriate masking though the Vue does have masking equipment which used to operate.
Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia, 2015) is essentially an action movie using some of the characters and tropes from the original. There are some impressive sequences and settings: some of the CGI is impressive, but some is rather obvious. The film lacks the sort of devil-may-care charisma of Mel Gibson: Tom Hardy as Max looks more like a James Bond hero. Charlize Theron is as good as the script allows as the wonderfully named Imperator Furiosa. The other characters reminded me of a trailer I saw for Game of Thrones (and similar fantasy series). The film also lacks the intentional humour of the original. I laughed a lot, the rest of the audience less so but still occasionally.
As I left the multiplex I sought out the price list, not exactly in an obvious position. Apparently I was correctly charged. I then had a pot of tea and read the whole Guardian review. I never quite worked out why Peter Bradshaw had awarded it four stars. His headline read:
The legendary Aussie-post apocalyptic road warrior rides again – as extravagantly deranged as ever …
Sort of true, though I would query the ‘as ever …’. This is a ‘post-modern’ version. To paraphrase Claude Rains in Lawrence of Arabia
I wished I had stayed with the original.