From 'Plex to Palace Part II - Tomlinson Holman's Presentation Reviews
January 2003

Note:  A discussion regarding the article on the Film Handler's Forum is here.

The Cover Story for Calendar Weekend on Dec. 26, 2002 “From ‘plex to palace: A tour” about local cinemas often fails to place sufficient emphasis on the main event: that once the lights go down, it is the picture and sound quality, and the relationship of the seats to the screen, that really count.  Interesting architecture, good popcorn, coffee shops convenient to the theater, and love seats may be a part of the experience, but pale in comparison to the relationship between the viewer and the movie.

Picture quality mainly consists of meeting brightness, sharpness, and steadiness (“jump” and “weave”) standards, along with having few defects such as bad splices, dirt, or scratches.  Sound quality begins with a sound system having a wide frequency range from bass to treble with smooth octave-to-octave response over the range, good uniformity of coverage of the audience, and low distortion, all in an auditorium with low background noise, and free from echoes and excessive reverberation.  Yes playing movies at the correct loudness counts of course, as described in the article, but it is hardly the only factor.  Architectural quality consists of providing a comfortable relationship between the viewers and the screen, while producing high impact on viewers (sufficiently large picture) without showing bad defects (too large a picture).  Yet too many of the theaters cited as good fail in one way or another to provide good quality in these ways.  And some of the most expensive have defects that ones that charge less do not.

The article also does not distinguish picture and sound quality differences between premium first-run theaters on the one hand, and revival and art houses on the other.  The principal difference between these for me is expectation: you just know you’re going to be watching a dirty scratched print most of the time that you go to an art house, while in the best theaters there is very little or no film damage and there is generally a higher expectation of performance.

Pacific’s The Grove Stadium
This premium theater sold recently for $30,000,000.  Was it worth it?  There are many things to like: the stadium seating provides better and more comfortable sight lines than flatter auditoriums.  It’s more comfortable because you aren’t looking up at the center of the picture from the best seats, but rather straight ahead.  The sound is quite good.  One way to tell is to sit exactly on the centerline (and this is a little hard to find because the one entrance ramp at one side puts the seating area off center—you can’t count seats to find the exact center) and listen to the pre-show music.  It’s in two-channel stereo, with the voice over equal in the two channels.  If everything is perfect, you will hear a “phantom image” with the announcer directly in front of you; otherwise it will come from one side or the other.  The reason that this is a good test is that it requires very good matching of the channels to bring this off, and if they match this well, it shows care on the part of installation and adjustment of the sound system.

But there is a fly in the ointment with stadium theaters such as these.  The single cross aisle is right in front of the best seats, and with only one entrance ramp on one side, you get people walking in front of you often, interrupting the picture.  A long movie like Gangs of New York makes this particularly troublesome as people come and go to concessions and the bathroom, and even take cell phone calls that originate in the auditorium.

The emergency exit is under the screen, with the Exit sign actually sticking up a little into the picture.  The light streaming up the exit stairs bounces around and illuminates the screen.  So a fade to rich black like on Kodak’s Vision Premiere print stock used for Gangs of New York fades to real black in the center of the screen, but to light gray in the corner, reminding you that you are in a theater.  On the other hand, other auditorium lighting is practically non-existent during the movie, enhancing contrast.  A problem is that things never seem quite in focus here—good, and not bad enough to get up and complain, but not really sharp. [Seen at The Grove recently The Hours (Screen 4), About Schmidt (Screen 14), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Screen 2), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Gangs of New York (Screen 4).]

Now here’s a question: is a $14 movie ticket worth it?  Well the answer is, it depends.  Yes there are premium German Kinoton projectors in use few other places that can produce a better picture and show management’s commitment to quality, so long as the print is good, but what about other issues, such as the relationship between the patron and the screen?  If you get to Catch Me If You Can an hour and a half early on opening day, you still don’t get great seating.  Why not?  Because of all those pre-sold seats—you’d better get yours in advance too.  Reserved seating means he who gets to the web site first gets the best seat.

Why aren’t all the seats premium?  Because in the larger screens, like number 10 used for this opening, the auditorium is much wider than the widescreen 1.85:1 presentation, so with a seat like number 32 in a row of about 40 you wind up looking straight ahead directly at the left edge of the picture!  You wind up turning your head or body for 2 hours to face the center of the screen.  The architects could have solved this by curving the rows, but then they wouldn’t necessarily get as many seats in.

These auditoriums are black boxes.  That’s a good thing because it means that light from the projector that reaches the screen and bounces off, illuminating the auditorium, doesn’t in general find its way back to the screen and wreck contrast.  So many theaters have visually interesting interiors: just what you don’t want.  The visual interest is illuminated by the screen, and is distracting, or at worst, re-illuminates the screen and destroys the screen contrast.  But a problem is that there are shiny objects behind the screen that pick up light and stand out: everything behind screens has to be flat black so that no reflections are seen.  One loudspeaker manufacturer used to supply their cinema woofers with the outer basket ring polished brightly—I can't tell you how many of those I've kissed with flat black Krylon spray paint.

The sound here is a little tricky.  The sound systems are good, but more than one auditorium has a noticeable echo.  This isn’t something that jumps out at you, but after long viewing in multiple auditoriums you just come to know that something isn’t quite right.  I understand from professional contacts that this problem is being worked on.  [Seen there Catch Me If You Can, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Y Tu Mama Tambien.]

So the jury is out on the $14 ticket.  With improvements coming, and with an advanced ticket purchase (using a correctly scaled auditorium map: the ones at the front desk are schematic and don’t show the actual relationship to the screen), this could be worth the money.  The prints here are brand new, kept clean, and are well handled.

Cecchi Gori Fine Arts Theater
Perhaps surprisingly, this art house actually has the sharpest picture seen recently, on talk to her.  The sound however was low in level (the older art house patron crowd complains when the level is at the loudness that the filmmaker made the picture, but that’s another story).  The print was also not in perfect shape, and the auditorium slope leaves heads in the picture, but it was startling in sharpness compared to the big boys.

Laemmle’s Sunset 5
The smaller auditoriums here fail because when the air conditioning turns on, it’s so noisy that I’ve seen patrons look up to see what happened.  Projection is undistinguished as there often is a “shutter ghost,” a smearing of the picture on subtitles for instance.  Also these auditoriums are long and relatively narrow, having a center aisle that gives up the best area for seats to an aisle.  Screen 1 here is better, with two aisles and a large center area, and better projection and sound, but if you listen closely you can hear the projector.  The sound is better principally because the wider auditorium lets you hear stereo that is obscured in narrow auditoriums.  Prints of first-run movies here can be all right, but independent films not in first run often show bad print defects.  [Seen recently there The Good Girl, Far from Heaven, Bowling for Columbine, The Quiet American, all screen 1]

Sure we love it for the programming, but the technical quality leaves lots to be desired.  Uneven focus during the show, audible distortion on peaks in the left channel, very badly damaged prints, they’re all part of the territory.  Seen here recently The Bank.

Your writer commented that the picture was bright and sharp here.  True, but not explained is why.  This is one of the many old big theaters that were “twinned,” with a wall put down the middle of the old auditorium to keep business up.  The problem is then that the two new auditoriums get very narrow compared to their length, and the picture is small, and thus not hard to get bright and sharp.  The resulting small picture lacks impact—you might as well wait for the video.  The bottom of the screen is more than 6’ off the floor, so if you compensate for the small picture by sitting close, you’ll crane your neck to do it.  Seen here The Pianist.

Landmark’s Regent
Decent sound but air conditioning noise loud enough that it covers the backgrounds of the film in quiet scenes.  The projector can be in focus at the top or bottom of the screen, but not both apparently!  Seen here Nicholas Nickleby, Russian Ark.

Universal Studios Cinema at Universal Citywalk
The auditoriums here with balconies have a rather flat lower floor, so the screen is raised to compensate the sight lines so you can see over heads in front of you, but you crane your neck from the good seats to see the picture, or you scrunch down and get a bad back.  The exit signs are so bright that they are distracting.

Century Plaza Screen 1
This was a favorite: big screen, good sound, typically good prints.  However, what used to have a full time projectionist gave way to being operated by the concessionaires.  For Eyes Wide Shut at an afternoon screening they couldn’t get the picture on the screen—it was on the ceiling and floor because the anamorphic lens had been twisted.  So for lack of slight knowledge this theater is going the way of the do-do bird—it’s slated to be torn down.  Today it's showing Chicago, and it has a shutter ghost (smeary double image above the real one), but boy does it sound good.

A story related to this theater goes like this.  In 1989 for the AFI benefit screening of the re-release of Lawrence of Arabia, I tuned this theater on a Saturday morning for the Sunday afternoon, $250 per seat screening.  I noticed something wrong, so I came back on Sunday morning with a ladder.  There I am 10' in the air when the back door of the auditorium opens.  The producer of the remake shouts at me: "What the hell are you doing?"  I answered back "Picking spit wads off the screen!"  Now we're friends for life.  I got the best seat in the auditorium that afternoon—I paid for my ticket two ways.

El Capitan
Since the stage was added several years ago, and the sound system consequently changed so it could fly in and out as needed, coverage of the sound system is poor.  The worst seats are on the balcony front, just where you might think would be the best.  There’s a mid-range hole in the frequency response of the sound system, which is ameliorated if you sit downstairs instead.  Since the most desired seats can be in the front balcony, here’s a warning—the sound is poor there.

The Bridge Cinema Deluxe
This is another premium high-ticket price theater, but not located so close to affluent areas as Arclight and The Grove.  Nevertheless the presentation is pretty good, although see below for recent upgrading after only about a year in operation.  One problem in one screen is that type moving at the bottom of the screen is repeated in the upper opposite corner—something went badly wrong in the port glass positioning or coating in that screen apparently.  The front channel sound systems sound good, but the surrounds are underwhelming (too few, and plastic boxes, a trend that doesn't seem like such a good idea maybe).

If the above sounds like there are problems in Los Angeles theaters, woe to him that goes outside LA, where at least the industry is around to beat up on theater owners.  Traveling as close as Agoura Hills, we find things are much worse.  Going there because the film I wanted to see had left town, The Emperor’s Club, the Mann Agoura 8 auditorium had loud continuous sound-system hum, projector noise so loud you’d have thought you were in a high school classroom in the 1960’s, holes in the screen, and bad splices between reels.  Further afield, San Antonio, Texas Regal Cinemas Live Oaks 18 for Die Another Day was congenitally out of focus because the 35mm picture was simply overblown, and the sound system was distorted, an altogether unhappy experience.

However, despite problems, there are signs that things are looking up in Los Angeles.  Box office is better than in years, and this ultimately yields the money on which to compete on better picture and sound.  Mann has recently upgraded the National in Westwood, with a new sound system, new screen, and new carpet.  These together have made a startling difference: where once you got two pictures for the price of one (there was a ghost on the screen caused apparently by bad projection port glass), audible projector noise, and an ancient (in film technology years) one-off experimental surround system, these problems are now all solved.  The air conditioning noise is still a bit high, but otherwise this is almost a totally new experience.  Big screens are increasingly rare today, and it was really nice to see Star Trek: Nemesis well presented on a LARGE screen.

Another sign of improvement, The Bridge Cinema Deluxe chose to change out all their 35mm projectors recently.  They did this because the ones originally installed simply weren’t cutting it—too much unsteadiness in the pictures.  Amazing what you’ll find out asking assistant managers how things are going!

So my winners are:
For Sharpest Picture: Landmark Cecchi Gori Fine Arts
For Most Impressive Screen: Mann National
For Best Sound about to be Torn Down: Cineplex Century Plaza Screen 1
For Spending the Most Money to Improve an already Good Complex: The Bridge Cinema Deluxe, with a potential close runner up if they continue to work on improvements Arclight.


Tomlinson Holman is Professor of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California and president of TMH Corporation.  He is the inventor of the THX Sound System.  ©2003 Tomlinson Holman.