Improving Your On Screen Presentation

The word “presentation is commonly misused in the theatre exhibition industry.  Perhaps the best example of this was a while back at a certain Dallas 24 plex.  I overheard the manager boasting to some partons about their great “presentation.”  Knowing what theatre I was at, I started to pay closer attention to what his version of the word was.  “Computer advanced ticketing, spacious lobby, beautiful décor, and lets not forget the “best” customer service in the industry,” blah, blah, blah.  He went on and on until I approached and interjected “I came here to see a movie, not your lobby.  How is your film presentation?”  “Stadium seating with loveseats and SDDS digital sound in every auditorium” was his response.

The feature I saw was not recorded in SDDS and I got treated to what turned out to be very poor analog sound.  To make a long story short, the print had scratches going in every direction throughout the movie and there was so much dirt on the film that at the reel changes there was more black specks than picture.  So on my way out I made it a point to stop and speak with Mr. Presentation again, where it was explained to me that it was in SDDS because all of the auditoriums are outfitted with it and in regards to the scratches and dirt I learned that “film just gets that way.”

That experience represents to me precisely what is wrong with this industry.  Everyone is far too concerned with their neon lights and high tech appearance that they are forgetting the entire reason why the customers came there in the first place, to see a movie!

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not trying to imply that the floor operation isn’t important.  Without it theatres wouldn’t exist.  However, with today’s advances in the box office and concession stands, a customer should be able to purchase tickets, concessions and be seated within ten, maybe fifteen minutes of arriving at the theatre, providing the management and floor staff are properly staffed and doing their jobs in an efficient manner.

So for those of you who passed third grade math I offer this:  If the time spent in the lobby is ten to fifteen minutes and the average movie with trailers runs between 90 and 150 minutes, just how important is your “on-screen” presentation?  I came up with approximately ten times more important.

I have been told by some that film is an “imperfect medium” and even SMPTE  states the average useful life of a print is 300 runs.  The longest running film I’ve ever personally ran was “Beauty and the Beast” for nine months, six shows a day…and without exaggerating, it left in better condition than when I received it brand new.

That’s impossible you say?  Hardly. It is an understood fact that the more a film is run the harder the emulsion becomes.  With this taking place, the film is more durable and harder to scratch, not to mention the improvements in the image on screen.  There’s just one problem…the common projection practices, which I refer to as the “old school” of training, simply don’t allow this to take place.  This is because by the time the film has been run enough for the emulsion to harden, all of the dirt has become permanently embedded into the film emulsion.

So the film is a little dirty, it’s not scratched yet.  You can just put a film cleaner on it right?  Wrong!  Simply put, if you can see any but the slightest amount of dirt on the projected image, it’s probably too late as it is now part of the emulsion.  On the other hand, if the film is still fairly new, a little dirty and the emulsion hasn’t hardened yet, running a film cleaner can scratch the film while it is pulling the loose dirt off.  So what’s the solution?

Everyone who reads the trade publications has seen the articles here and there on the right way to run a booth.  I’m not arguing the facts such as wearing gloves, mopping the floor, checking the relative humidity of the booth environment and so on.  My argument is with their “old school” outdated techniques.  All film prints are now on polyester base stock, which many of you have probably already learned has a real talent for attracting airborne dust and dirt, in addition to being scratched easier.

The following suggestions are directly related to this change based upon my personal tests and experience with polyester film stocks.  They are in no particular order of importance.

Thread the emulsion side of the film on the rollers, not the base side.  This means when standing directly behind the lamphouse, if your platter is on the left side, the soundtrack edge of the film should be facing away from the screen as it is traveling to and from the projector.  If the platter is on the right side, the soundtrack edge of the film should be facing towards the screen as it is traveling to and from the projector.

Why?  What difference does it make?  Quite simply, the base side of the film is what attracts and retains the dirt.  The idea is to run the emulsion side of the film over as many of the rollers as possible.  The “old school” projectionists will argue the base side of the film is more durable but let’s face the facts, there is no way to thread a platter where every roller runs on the base side of the film without an excessive and dangerous amount of twisting involved.  So I ask them, did those couple of “emulsion” rollers scratch your films?  Your rollers do spin don’t they?  Thus that argument doesn’t hold true.  By threading in this manner, the rollers will stay cleaner running on the emulsion than the base.

Keep the leader off of the floor when threading.  Ever noticed the first trailer to hit the screen is typically the dirtiest and most commonly scratched?  Quite simply there is no way to keep a floor perfectly clean and far too many “old school” operators thread one of the following two ways:

The first method is to thread the film over to the projector, through it, and then motor the leader on to the floor!  Then grab this mess of leader and untangle it as you make your way back to the take-up platter.

The other unacceptable procedure, although slightly better, is to thread the film through the rollers, bypassing the projector, all the way to the take-up platter, then thread the projector last.

Now the latter procedure is the preferred method of threading, but with one major mistake:  the leader still hits the floor during threading.  But the audience doesn’t ever see the leader.  What difference does it make, right?  That is correct if all of the following conditions are met:  a brand new print never run, with a brand new stretch of leader never before used.  So that practice is effective for about one show.  Why?  Because that stretch of leader that was briefly on the floor during the threading process has picked up some dirt, and it will then wind itself up against the wrap of film ahead of it and behind it on the take-up platter spreading the dirt to the next layer of film.  On the next show the process will repeat itself with more dirt as the second layer of film spreads the dirt to the third layer and so on as the film is re-threaded each show.  Before you know it that first preview is dirty and in many instances the dirt traveling on the film will collect in the gate and start to scratch the rest of the print.

The proper way to thread-up is to thread the film through the rollers, bypassing the projector and lower magazine roller, all the way to the take-up platter.  Then “thread-up” the projector literally.  Start by sliding the film onto the lower magazine roller, being careful to keep back tension against the take-up platter so it will not come into contact with the floor.  Then thread through the failsafe, soundhead, projector and finally any digital sound readers.  One fair note of warning:  learning to thread this way after years of the “old school” practices will be difficult and will take a week or two of practice.  Once mastered however, will cut your threading time down by up to 50% without losing any accuracy.

For those who sincerely care about their “on screen” presentation, but just can’t seem to “thread up,” the following trick will suffice.  Keep a clothespin by each projector and after threading to the take-up platter, clip the leader temporarily to the frame of the soundhead to keep the slack off of the floor while you “thread down.”

One last tip on this subject.  Once everyone operating the booth has converted to either “threading up” or the clothespin technique (it must be 100% compliance) toss your old leaders and order new ones because you will never get the dirt off of the old ones and this will end up being a wasted effort.

Clean the film path after every show.  It amazes me that the articles I see in magazines and in film cans fail to mention this.  Compressed air, Xe-Kote, paintbrushes, WD-40 and a lighter, etc. are not acceptable methods to clean a projector, yet this is done every day around the world.  Note:  the projector may look clean and shiny after slopping a liquid cleaner on it, but that is simply the light reflecting off of the liquid, much like a paved road after it rains.  The big concern is the residue left behind that will transfer to the print the next show.

All that is needed is a medium bristle toothbrush and a shop rag.  The toothbrush is for cleaning the intermittent shoe and sprockets on Century projectors and the shop rag is for the film trap/gate and sprockets on all other projectors.  Important:  NEVER clean anything in the projector while it is in motion as severe damage could result!

The shop rag can be folded over itself to be twice as thick for cleaning the sprockets and the heavy stitch on the outer edges will clean the corners of straight gate projectors quite nicely.  These two items should be changed out about every six months.

At today’s multiplexes time is at a minimum between shows, so don’t waste it by dusting off the top of the lamphouse and the inside walls of the projector.  Clean only the areas that come in direct contact with the film and save the cosmetic cleaning for the end of the night.

Never mark the edges of the film.  The use of shoe polish, liquid paper, paint pens, etc. can cause the SDDS or Dolby Digital audio to mistrack and drop out.  In addition, these types of marks typically flake off in the projector causing excessive dirt buildup around the reel changes and can stick on a platter causing a wrap.  In extreme cases these items may even drip down into the analog audio track and into the picture.

The best procedure I’ve come across to date for marking changes is to place a piece of masking tape on the side of the shipping reel and place a mark on the tape where the outer diameter of the film roll is (also noting the reel number).  This way, when breaking the film back down onto the reels, it will give a very close approximation of where the splice will be.  (Don’t mark directly on the reel because if this practice ever becomes widespread, it will be near impossible to differentiate between the old marks and the new one.)

Don’t be stingy with the leader.  The typical theater uses 25-35 feet of threading leader, or basically just enough to get the job done.  This is a bad practice for two reasons.  First, many platters either by design or calibration error simply cannot fully get up to speed without the film wrapping partially around the brain for the first ten to twenty seconds.  This can cause scratches and excessive dirt buildup during the first fifty feet of the first trailer.  Second, having short leaders also means the first ten to twenty feet of that first trailer will be sitting exposed to airborne dirt on the platter rollers until the show begins.  This is also why the practice of threading the night before must not be allowed.

Fortunately, many automation designs have changed to allow an unlimited amount of leader to be used with the actual douser open command on a cue instead of a seven second delay.  Note:  most older units can be extended to perhaps a twenty second delay by your engineer.  If this cannot be altered, I recommend a “running start” where the projector motor is turned on, and the “start” button is depressed seven seconds before the first trailer enters the projector.  After the start button is pressed, the motor switch can then be switched of for the automation to run the remainder of the show.

Use the film cleaners.  That is what they are there for.  There are three basic types of cleaners used in theatres today.  They are the standard dry-web media cleaner, the static-brush design and particle transfer rollers.  In my own personal testing of these, the standard day-web media cleaner is clearly the cleaner of choice.

The static-brush design is only effective under ideal conditions, of which 90% of all theatres do not have and the particle transfer rollers do just that.  By this I mean they transfer the dirt particles from one part of the film to the other.

About five years ago, a theater I was at purchased these particle transfer rollers and we did a simple test.  We had two prints of the same movie, both copies brand new and run under exactly the same care.  Print “A” was cleaned once on the first show only with a dry-web media cleaner and print “B” was cleaned every show on particle transfer rollers, carefully washed after each run.  The idea was to run the prints like this for two weeks and see what the improvements were as opposed to a weekly dry cleaning.  To get directly to the point, we cancelled the test after one week because print “B” looked so bad we didn’t want it to get any worse!  So if you have any of these, I highly recommend throwing them away.

In using dry-web media cleaners, I suggest two or three times a week per print, depending on the particular booth environment.  Remember, just because it doesn’t look dirty doesn’t mean it isn’t.
Once dirt is visible, it is often already embedded into the emulsion layer of the print and the majority of it is then permanent.  Also, don’t be afraid to run a cleaner on the first screening.  I’ve made this a practice over the years and have never had the slightest scratch from it.  Actually, this practice will wipe away any loose shipping dirt before the film is run through the projector.

NOTE:  A new product called FilmGuard will be on the market fall 1999.  It converts the standard dry-web media cleaners into wet cleaners that will polish a protective coating on the film to keep the print 100% dirt and scratch free regardless of the number of runs.  It neutralizes static charges, covers up base scratches and does wonders for cleaning up old prints.  The product has been in testing for 10 years and is currently awaiting a patent before release.  Check back to this web site ( for the latest information.  Information will be posted as soon as the patent goes through.

Polyester film.  I prefer the term “fake film” because that is precisely what that roll of plastic is.  This “improvement” in the movie industry has caused nothing but problems worldwide.  I could write a book about this junk but since cheaper is always better, it’s probably here to stay.  Instead I offer the following three suggestions.

First, make SMALL loops.  Whoever came up with the “two finger” loop rule obviously never came to the realization that his two fingers put together is not the same size as everyone else’s two fingers.  Polyester stock, unlike triacetate, possesses a “base curl.”  By this I mean if one was to lay a strip of film with the emulsion side down against a flat surface, only the edges would make contact with the surface as the center of the film would curl upward, towards the base side.  This fault alone is why films today run rougher, louder and more erratic than triacetate did.  Making small loops, particularly the lower loop, will drastically help and put an end to “standing” scratches.

Second, always wind the film “emulsion out.”  If you currently wind the soundtrack edge “up” on a platter, you are already doing this.  Winding the film “emulsion in” causes the base curl to stretch and become exaggerated, causing focus, registration and film buckling problems to the point that it has a hard time twisting between the rollers.  Two perfect examples of this are Paramount and Fox trailers.  As of the writing of this, these two studios are the only ones shipping their trailers wound “emulsion in.”  It’s no accident their trailers take a few days of running or being stored wound “emulsion out” before they will run steady and with an even focus.  (This is a particular problem on straight-gate projectors.)

Third, if static electricity is a problem, raise the humidity, keep the booth temperature cool and try to never run the heaters in the booth.  Miracle cures for static such as spreading Xe-Kote on the edge of the film and putting cue tape on the platter rollers is like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound, because in the long run it won’t really help.  Xe-Kote may have been an acceptable lubricant for triacetate film stocks, but it will cause polyester film to stick, attract dirt and deteriorate the film itself to the point of colored (primarily red) specks across the image as well as discoloration in general.

As far as applying cue tape on the platter rollers think about this…since when is a plastic roller conductive?  Sure the shaft and mounting brackets may all be metal and properly grounded, but what good is it if the actual roller itself is non-conductive?

Trailer changes.  It is amazing to me how many people do not change out trailers properly.  There are a few different acceptable ways of accomplishing this task, but if your particular method involves the film on the floor at any point or the trailers are not being run the following show, then I recommend the following procedure.

In this example, the third trailer will be changed out.  First, remove the center ring.  Second, locate the splice joining the second and third trailer together.  This is easily seen by angling yourself against the reflected light on the edge of the film.  (If you find this too difficult, then a small piece of paper can be inserted during the take-up of the previous show at the two splices.  Inserting cores or “boots” is definitely not a recommendation as the film will not feed consistently and the weight dispersion will be off center the next show, possibly causing the print to wrap or be thrown.)  Push the leader and first two trailers gently toward the brain at the splice.  Tear the splice and place this “loop” of film on an empty platter.  Splice the new third trailer to this loop and without adding any back-tension while holding the trailer with your hand, let it wind onto the loop of film as the platter is spinning slowly.  Next you will need to remove the old third trailer by locating the splice joining it to the fourth trailer, tearing that splice and removing the trailer.  This trailer “loop” can then be wound back onto a core later.  Finally, splice the loop containing the first three trailers to the fourth one and gently lay it back into the center of the film roll, being careful not to create any twists.  If this loop does not fit easily inside the film roll, an inward bulge (towards the brain) to accommodate any excess film is acceptable.  Note:  on Christie platters an outward bulge is also acceptable.  This procedure will work for any trailer changes except the first trailer.  Since the weight of just one trailer is not enough to hold its shape, the leader should be removed and attached to the new first trailer on the bench and then loaded onto a center ring before dropping it back into the roll.

Winding and handling of trailers.  So now you’ve got that removed trailer in loop format and it needs to be wound back onto a core.  If your theatre has the standard Kelmar rewind table, then this is the best method and it is quite easy.

Hang the loop of film on the “auto stop” roller.  Pull the tail end of it over to the core (on the flange), secure it and turn the motor slowly to a moderate speed.  The roller will spin as the film is pulled off of the top and wind quickly and easily back onto the core without any tangling.  If your theatre has a different rewind table, but the reels do hang over the front edge, a roller with ball bearings can be placed on the supply spindle to achieve a similar effect.  Never pull on the end of the film roll after it is wound back up (either on a reel or a core) because that will create “cinch mark” scratches.  For those of you who don’t know what that is, they are the tiny “dash scratches” flashing randomly around the image.

Projectionist staffing.  Believe it or not I have run into a few theatres where the management was so concerned about the possibility of not having a projectionist on any given shift that ALL employees were “trained” to run the booth.  This is about the worst possible idea.  Actually, I recommend the exact opposite practice.  The more operators there are in a given theatre, the less each one will be working in the booth, therefore the less experience they will each have.  Consequently, the more errors are sure to result.

Grading YOUR presentation.  In rating the “on screen” presentation of a given theater, I recommend to look at two basic things.  The first one is the oldest film at the theatre.  Take a seat and observe the image through a reel change (this could take up to twenty minutes) paying particular attention to whatever part of the picture is the brightest.  (For example, a clear sky or a white building.)  Look for any black specks of dirt or scratches of any kind.  The second thing to look at is the trailer presentation.  What is the patron’s first impression?  Is the first part of the first preview perfectly clean and scratch free?  Do the green bands look like slides?  Is the “coming soon” slate spliced directly to the next green band, frequently overlapping the audio?  Is the picture center framed or is it off a little bit?  (Note:  THX trailer logos are printed high on the screen and should not be used to judge framing.  Also, just because the frame line is not visible on flat movies DOES NOT mean it is properly in frame)  Does the theatre policy logo look like new?  Does the audio cut in late or out early at the splices?  Perhaps the theatre in review has room to improve.

A continuously occurring quality “on screen” presentation is the direct result of a very few operators working together, always handling the films properly, keeping the equipment clean and in good working order, maintaining certain procedures and basically NEVER MAKING A SINGLE MISTAKE in what is generally an overlooked job.  When there are no problems, no customer complaints, no handing out of passes or giving refunds, a quality presentation can often go unnoticed.  So whenever your theatre reaches this standard, take a few steps back and evaluate their performance.  After all, with the amount of revenue being brought in to see these films, their salaries are peanuts in comparison.  Even if only one show a month breaks, wraps or some other type of operator error occurs, the refunds given and the dissatisfied customers will never stack up to an experienced and caring team of professional projectionists.  Besides, isn’t a quality and problem free “on screen” presentation everyone’s ultimate goal?