Last week, I was kicked out of my own home cinema by my teenage daughter. It’s fine, she’d warned me that this would happen. It was for a pre-Halloween film party with some friends, and as my cinema room can just about squeeze in seven people seated (two have to make do with bean bags), she naturally invited eight other friends. Perhaps a couple of them hung from the ceiling – I’m not sure, but it wasn’t my problem – as I had to give up my room and my usual film night.
“Why don’t we go to the cinema for a change?” my wife asked. She fancied seeing The Woman King, and as I’d heard good things, I was happy to see it, so that was settled. So why did it turn out to be a disappointing evening out? Well, it wasn’t the film, which I would recommend.
The problem was that the movie had been out for a few weeks so my normal first choices for cinemas were unavailable – I had to find in showing anywhere I could find. This meant an Odeon near central London, about half an hour’s drive from my house. Doable. The journey was a little stressful, mainly as we realized there was no dedicated car park and my better half spent the journey battling with the Just Park app – but we managed to get it sorted and arrive in time.
The problems began in the foyer. As with every mainstream cinema, it was bright but charmless, and as we didn’t have time to eat before we left, we had to get quickly something to eat and drink. We then queued up to be told that we had to go to the machine on the wall to order our drinks, and then had to queue again – and then wait as our order was prepared, with the numbers of our ticket appearing on a screen. It felt a bit like waiting to be served in a shoe shop when the kids were little. When the order finally arrived, the chips turned out to be limp and tasteless. I would have preferred eating a shoe. I complained and was given a replacement – which proved to be essentially the same thing again. Not wanting to miss the start of the film I gave up and accepted the meager, overpriced fare.
None of that would have mattered though had our cinematic experience have been up to scratch –sadly it wasn’t. Immediately upon entering the screen I was taken aback by the small size of the screen in relation to the room. Having fed myself an almost exclusively IMAX-only diet it was a shock. It was a bit like the IMAX, but the other way round – all seats and almost no screen.
Fortunately, I’d expected as much and I’d booked relatively close to the screen, but it was still too small. At least the seat recliners were fine and the table for our ridiculously oversized drink and our pitifully cold chips was fine too.
What wasn’t fine was the next problem in the room – other people. The film started but people were still coming in – and standing at the side, trying to sort out the other people that had sat in their seats. I had this the last time I went to an IMAX – hundreds of seats and a couple had chosen to sit in the two seats that I had carefully selected. Back at the Odeon, ‘SeatGate’ was eventually sorted, and I could start to immerse myself in the film.
At least I would have had I not been troubled by the lackluster picture quality. The image was flat, dim, and uninspiring, which was a shame considering the drama on screen. It wasn’t helped by the soundstage which had no impact. The screen is allegedly Dolby Digital capable, but the front sound stage was weak and there were no discernible surround effects. It just felt very underwhelming. My wife even commented later on how the setup felt like it detracted from the film, rather than enhancing it.
What was also irritating was that some lights were left on during the whole film, presumably so the people walking about as if it was a museum could see where they were going.
But sadly, all of this seems to be standard for your average cinema screen. Too small, too dim, and poor sound, with disappointingly behaved audiences. Is it any surprise that after the high cost of tickets, food, and travel, cinemas are struggling to get people to come back through their doors? The lure of a 4K disc or stream, a regular Blu-ray, or even, would you believe it, a DVD holds more appeal for many.
As I regularly write about here, premium formats, such as IMAX, and Dolby Cinema, Premium Large Formats such as Superscreen, and even 4DX, are the way to experience movies in the cinema. However, with so many films competing for premium attention, you have to be quick off the mark to catch them in those formats – as well as caring about doing so enough in the first place.
For the average punter then, the standard quality of regular screens isn’t good enough.
Of course, not all standard screens are not poor. It’s not as if you have to have a giant screen, 4K, or super advanced Dolby Atmos sound to have a great experience. A well-maintained, regular lamp-based projector, with 2K resolution and 5.1 surround, can still deliver a superb cinematic experience – as long as it’s bright enough, the seats good enough, and some care and attention paid to removing excess lights, as well as some screen masking to maximize contrast without black (or rather grey) bars.
Is it too much to ask?
Or course, cinemas are going through a tough time, and funding upgrades must be impossible, so suggesting people stay away is not what I want to do. Going to the cinema and seeing something great, with a packed audience can be a transcendent experience.
So, when you do go, go premium if you can, or simply take the time to find a decent-quality screen, and stay away from those that aren’t up to par.
And cinema managers? If you can’t find the funds to get a new bulb and some screen masking, or even bother to turn the lights off, at least try and make sure your chips aren’t completely cold.