It’s not just you, movies look terrible now. A new report by Lane Brown in Vulture breaks down the problems plaguing cinematic projection, something I’ve harped on for years, including expired light bulbs, 3D filters left on for 2D shows, and a lack of skilled projectionists monitoring equipment for best operating conditions. “Projectionist” used to be a common job, with every movie theater employing at least one, if not more, back in the days when the job included shuffling around reels of 35 millimeter film and ensuring screenings progressed without interruption (Tyler Durden was a projectionist in Fight Club, so the job was still recognizable as a job in 1999).
But the advent of digital projection in the 2000s degraded the role of the projectionist until now, most theaters, especially those of the multiplex variety, don’t employ one even part time. Teenagers and overworked adults are left with the task of maintaining a theater’s projection equipment, which often requires technical skill to troubleshoot. You’re not imagining it, your movie is dark, and it’s probably because 1) the projector bulb is expired and needs replacing, or 2) someone left a 3D filter on a 2D showing, a common fault when there is no one dedicated person to checking to ensure the projection equipment is set up properly for the next film showing.
Another common fault—your movie is too loud. Again, with no one tasked with setting up each screening of a film, the habit is to turn the sound rack to eleven and leave it, whether the film screening is an action movie, a comedy, or a kid’s cartoon.
There are other factors at play, such as filmmakers deliberately darkening or cutting images to hide shoddy VFX, an issue becoming more prevalent in the era of the VFX crunch, but the problem with poor projection has been snowballing for the last decade. I deeply appreciate Lane Brown pointing out that theaters, in general, didn’t make use of the pandemic shutdown and slow recovery to improve their buildings (“They had the entire pandemic to redo this place and it still looks awful.”). I know there’s a money issue there, but, for instance, AMC came into a windfall on the back of becoming a meme stock but did they invest in cleaning and improving their theaters? No!
So it’s not just you, your movie is too dark and probably too loud and it can’t all be blamed on covering for sh-tty VFX, because the infrastructure of movie theaters is crumbling (like everything else). If you’re lucky to live in an area with a good indie cinema, or maybe an Alamo Drafthouse or similar, that’s one thing. In Chicago, I have access to a couple well managed independent theaters, and now, an Alamo Drafthouse, but the multiplexes remain a shambles (I see most of my early screenings in an AMC, not the Alamo Drafthouse, so it’s a problem for reviewing films, too).
And despite hit movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home, Top Gun: Maverick, and Avatar: The Way of Water “saving” movie theaters, the reality is, attendance is still down from 2019. The recovery is not complete. But the audience IS coming back, in steadily growing numbers, though I wonder for how long when every trip to the theater reminds you how awful going to theater is.
Live long and gossip,