Friday, November 19, 2010

You Better Super Size your movie for $5 more... Or else...

I went to the movies this week to go watch Unstoppable. It was an average film with a cast that gelled to well for its own good. Tony Scott was working his clich├ęd cinematography, but thankfully he dialed back the "writing the dialogue on the screen as it's being said for no apparent reason other than it's a lazy way to drive the point home" thing he does. But I have to thank Tony Scott for this almost-train-wreck film about an almost train wreck, because if it were actually stellar, I may have missed what I found to be more entertaining than the film. Mainly, the way it was shown.

Let me backtrack to two hours before the movie. As Ruth and I walked up to the theater, we did the usual stare and search for the time the movie was showing, even though we checked before we left the house. The movie was playing at the time we thought it was, but then I noticed an in-between time slot that I didn't notice before. It was for the XD extreme digital theater. For $5 dollars more, you get to see a film in "extreme digital".

Again, this is not 3D. But "extreme digital". What's extreme digital you may ask? Well, according to Cinemark, it's a "wall-to-wall screen" (floor to ceiling as well, it seems) and boasts a "custom sound system". You can watch a 2D or 3D film in this theater, it's just... You know... EXTREME when you do. Bottom line, you get an extra ten feet of screen space and some more speakers than you do in the normal theater.

Unstoppable wasn't going to be the movie that was going to sell me on shelling out an extra 5 bucks. As long as it was in focus, that's all I was caring about for this flick.

As we go to our seats, previews are underway. We settle in, and the film starts. Again, nothing unfamiliar. Scott using his fancy cuts to set a tone for the rest of the film. Very pretty cityscapes and things whizzing by, probably trains.

About 30 minutes in, I notice it. At first I thought it was stylized, but as the scenes shifted from news coverage to the narrative, I saw it didn't change. The film was completely letterboxed. Now I'm not talking about black bars on the top and bottom of the screen, I'm talking about a good two feet of screen space all around the movie not being used.

The film was shot in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, so seeing bars at the top and bottom of the screen would have been normal. But bars on the side? That usually only happens as a stylized choice or if you're watching something that was shot in 4:3.

This shit was bugging me. I know the film was shot in 35mm, I could tell, and there were no cigarette burns (little marks on the right corner of the screen signaling the projectionist to switch reels), so I know this was being shown on the digital projector. This was, after all, a digital theater. And then a scary thought occurred to me.

Did they purposely make the film smaller to make their XD extreme digital theaters more appealing?

The thought plagued my mind, even after the movie, I walked around to see if I could find an employee not behind the concession stand that could answer this question for me. I went so far as to ask the person at the information counter, but alas, my lovely girl was hungry, so that was that for the asking.

The questions continued to flow. A digital movie is shown at 1080p in theaters with digital projectors. So a 1080p film in the regular theater vs. a 1080p film in the XD theater should look exactly the same, no?

Wait! Maybe the XD theater uses Sony or JVC's 4k projectors? Those projectors show films at 4096x2160!

Nope, turns out Cinemark theaters are an all BARCO chain, BARCO projectors are 2K projectors (1080p).

So with the only variable being the size of the screen (wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling in the XD screens), why would a film that should fit easily, screen edge to screen edge, in the normal theater, have so much unused screen space on the sides?

Aziz Ansari blogged a while back about his fake IMAX experience. Can it be that this is just another tactic used by theaters with no true Imax theaters to make you pay $5 more for the screen size that you should have gotten in the first place?

All I know is, there's one Imax theater in San Francisco, unless the film I'm going to see utilizes all 76x97 feet of screen space, I'm saving my 5 bucks for the already overinflated price of popcorn. Well, $5.75. I get free refills with the bigger one, and I'm totally going to come back after the movie for it, right?

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