I often write wax lyrical about the premium cinema formats, which normally means one of three formats, IMAX with Laser, Dolby Cinema, and 4K with Atmos, which isn’t an official standard but is known in the UK as the popular multiplex chain Cineworld as Superscreen. When I go to the cinema, it’s usually in one of those formats. As such, friends and family sometimes refer to me as a cinema snob: – not in terms of films, but in terms of expecting a high standard of presentation. A few days ago, I was asked by a friend to join him to see the new film, Viking action drama The Northman, and having heard good things, I agreed. The film wasn’t showing in any premium format screen, but I thought I’d just go with it, so Screen 8 and Cineworld Hemel Hempstead it was then. Cineworld is, of course, your classic multiplex – a McCinema – but stop with your picture palace snobbiness – it’ll be fine, won’t it? Well no. No, it won’t.
My friend had booked his seat and told me the location so I could book next to him. I was somewhat surprised to find that he’d chosen to seat himself right at the very back, and when we got into the screen, I was surprised to discover that we were sitting right in front of the rear left speakers. Even more to my surprise was that the projection booth was placed in the middle of the back row – essentially cutting it into two sections, and I was sitting right next to it; so much so that I could even hear the projector during the film. It also completely blocked any audio from the right rears. In audio terms, it was, in short, a terrible place to sit.
I tried to raise the issue without sounding too complainy but was explained that it would be better to take in the whole screen from the back. Hmm. The thing is this was just a regular screen – it wasn’t particularly big. I recently wrote about building my home cinema and sitting at the back, the screen looked relatively smaller than my one at home.
But 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 picture quality. I was so poor. The Northman is a visually striking film, with dazzling moonlight nights, shadowy goings-on, and rich oranges of epic fights set against a background of molten lava. At least, I think so. The picture in this regular screen was so dull, lacking in brightness, devoid of contrast and color richness I could barely tell. It was just so flat. It was hard to make out any shadow detail, and it robbed the scenes of visual impact. And there was no 3D to be blamed here for light loss. The projector was likely old, and the lamp needed to be replaced, but it didn’t reflect well on Cineworld.
Then there’s image resolution. The projector was clearly a standard 2K model, so no 4K goodness and the picture was certainly less sharp than what I’m used to, in say, an IMAX presentation.
Then was the light bleed that came from the lights by the stairs to my left that remained on the whole time for some inexplicable reason, as well as the light bleed every time somebody got up and left the screen, and when they came back in. Really? Can’t people sit through a film? Have they ever thought of going to the toilet before the film starts?
The Northman is a film of bold intensity and I could only imagine how disappointed the director, Robert Eggers would be if he saw his film being shown in this way. However, if this is what the average moviegoer is experiencing, perhaps it’s not so surprising that viewers prefer to watch at home. The screen could still be decently sized, and if it’s an OLED or a high-end LED TV, the black levels and shadow detail will be better than this run-of-the-mill, can’t-be-bothered-to-make-it-better, standard cinema.
But do people even care? If you check reviews of your local multiplex, most comments will witter on about the length of the lines to be popcorn or the size of the nachos rather than any issues with the picture or sound.
I was stunned when many months ago I saw The Eternals at Vue in Cambridge – it was the worst picture quality I’ve seen in a commercial cinema in my life, but nobody was storming out of their seats – possibly as they were numbed into submission by the dullness of the film, or at least what of it they could discern.
Just the week before I’d seen Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, in my local equipped with an IMAX CoLa (commercial laser) projector, i.e., single-laser, and enjoyed a picture that was bright, sharp and colorful. It’s a shame the movie was largely incoherent and lacking thrills and, ironically, magic, and I would much rather have watched The Northman on such a screen. As there are no IMAX specific scenes Dolby Cinema would likely be the ultimate in way to watch the film in terms of picture quality.
So I say be more discerning – we deserve better than McCinema. If you can’t make it to a premium screen experience, seek out a theatre that cares about picture quality as much as it cares about selling you popcorn, and if it’s not good enough, let them know.