McCinema and the death of image quality

I often write wax lyrics about premium cinema formats, which normally means one of three formats, IMAX with Laser, Dolby Cinema and 4K with Atmos, which is not an official standard but is known in the Kingdom United under the popular multiplex channel name Cineworld as a super screen. When I go to the cinema, it’s usually in one of these formats. As such, my friends and family sometimes call me a film snob: – not in terms of films, but in terms of expecting a high standard of presentation. A few days ago a friend asked me to join him to see the new movie, Viking action drama The man from the north, and having heard good things, I accepted. The movie wasn’t showing on any premium format screens, but I thought I was just going to go for it, so Screen 8 and Cineworld Hemel Hempstead that was then. Cineworld is, of course, your classic multiplex – a McCinema – but stop with your picture-palace snobbery – you’ll be fine, won’t you? Well no. No, it won’t.

My friend had booked his place and told me the location so I could book next to him. I was somewhat surprised to find that he had chosen to sit at the very back, and when we entered the screen I was surprised to find that we were seated directly in front of the speakers back left. Even more to my surprise, the projection booth was placed in the middle of the back row – essentially splitting it into two sections, and I was seated right next to it; so much so that I could even hear the projector during the movie. He also completely blocked out all sound coming from the right-backs. In audio terms, it was, in short, a terrible place to sit.

I tried to raise the issue without sounding too plaintive, but was told it was better to take the whole screen from the back. Hmm. Thing is, it was just an ordinary screen – it wasn’t particularly big. I recently wrote about building my home theater and sitting in the back the screen looked relatively smaller than the one at home.

But it wasn’t the screen size that bothered me, or the fact that I could hear the rear left speakers were louder to me than the fronts – it was the image quality. I was so poor. The man from the north is a visually stunning film, with dazzling moonlit nights, dark events and rich oranges of epic battles against a backdrop of molten lava. At least I think so. The image on this ordinary screen was so dull, lacking in brightness, devoid of contrast and color richness that I could barely tell. It was so flat. It was difficult to distinguish details from shadows and it robbed the scenes of visual impact. And there was no 3D to blame here for the loss of light. The projector was probably old and the lamp needed replacing, but that didn’t reflect Cineworld well.

Then there is image resolution. The projector was clearly a standard 2K model, so no 4K goodness and the image was definitely less sharp than what I’m used to from, say, an IMAX presentation.

Then there was the light bleed that came from the lights near the stairs to my left that stayed on the whole time for some inexplicable reason, as well as the light bleed every time someone got up and left the screen, and when he came back. Really? Can’t people watch a movie? Did they ever think about going to the bathroom before the film started?

The man from the north is a film of audacious intensity and I could only imagine how disappointed the director, Robert Eggers, would be if he saw his film shown in this way. However, if that’s what the average moviegoer experiences, perhaps it’s not that surprising that viewers prefer to watch at home. The screen can still be a decent size, and if it’s an OLED or a high-end LED TV, the black levels and shadow detail will be better than this regular model, can’t be bothered-to-do-better, standard cinema.

But do people care? If you check the reviews of your local multiplex, most comments will be about the length of the lines to be popcorn or the size of the nachos rather than picture or sound issues.

I was amazed when I saw several months ago The Eternals at Vue in Cambridge – it was the worst picture quality I’ve seen in a commercial cinema in my life, but no one was rushing to their feet – perhaps because they were numb from the monotony of the film, or at least what they could discern from it.

Just the week before I saw Fantastic Beasts: Dumbledore’s Secrets, in my room equipped with an IMAX CoLa (commercial laser) projector, that is to say a single laser, and I enjoyed a bright, sharp and colorful image. It’s a shame the film is largely incoherent and lacks thrills and, ironically, magic, and I would have preferred to watch The man from the north on such a screen. Since there are no IMAX-specific scenes, Dolby Cinema would probably be the ultimate way to watch the movie in terms of picture quality.

So I say be more discerning – we deserve better than McCinema. If you can’t enjoy a high-end screen experience, look for a cinema that cares about picture quality as much as selling popcorn, and if that’s not good enough, let them know.

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